Saturday, May 13, 2006


G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery - 1920-2006

I know that if you didn't grow up in Mississippi, this post might be a little puzzling to you. I even hesitated to write it at all, until I got an email from Lea Margaret this morning that said, basically, "You HAVE to write it; this is what heritage and place are all about. Alex needs to know."

And she's right. He does.

Yesterday, we lost one of Mississippi's most beloved sons, Sonny Montgomery.

Sonny was a member of the US House of Representatives for thirty years (1967-1997), and he was from my hometown. He was an old-school Southern democrat, committed to fighting for our farmers, and our soldiers, and our families. A soldier himself, he very literally dedicated his life to his country, and as I thought today about what he meant to the small Mississippi town where I grew up, I cried.

When I was a little girl, I used to walk with my daddy from the courthouse to the main post office in Meridian. Sonny's office was on the 2nd or 3rd floor, and I can remember running into him on the courthouse steps, listening to him and daddy shoot the breeze in the way that only Southern men can do. It never occurred to me that Sonny was "important" - he was just the nice man who always wore a suit and tie and traveled to Washington a bunch.

When I was around 13 or 14, I remember going up to Sonny's office with my cousin Paige and picking up boxes of Congressional cookbooks so that we could pass them out at the Neshoba County Fair. It was about 114 in the shade that day, but Paige and I were as proud as could be...we were on a mission "for Sonny," and that felt like a mighty big honor indeed.

I was probably in high school before I understood that Sonny was one of the most powerful men in Washington, before I realized that his closest friend was a man named George Herbert Walker Bush. Sonny was very close to my friend Liz's family, and many nights when we were hanging out at Liz's house, Sonny would come through her front door - in a suit and tie, as always - and make time for conversation with a bunch of silly teenagers. He was a Southern gentleman in every sense of the word.

When I was in college I would sometimes get home on Fridays in time to eat lunch at Weidmann's with my mama, and many Fridays I would see Sonny at a table with five or six other men, holding court and philosophizing about whatever the topic of the day might be. And his behavior was no different with dignitaries. I'll never forget Liz's mama telling us about eating dinner with Sonny and President and Mrs. Bush. Sonny and the President got into a lively discussion about running and weight, and at one point in the conversation, the President looked at Liz's mom, who is a dedicated runner, and said, "So, J., what do YOU weigh?" He and Sonny obviously had a pretty down-to-earth relationship. :-)

What strikes me now - in an age where career politicians are often immersed in scandal or consumed by furthering their own agenda - is how normal Sonny was. He genuinely cared for the people he served. To this day I've never heard anyone say a negative thing about him. Let that sink in for just a second...he was a politician...and I've never heard a negative word.

Sid Salter, an editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, says that "It was Mongomery's life as a soldier that shaped his political career. He became the very best friend that veterans of American military service ever had. Through the Montgomery GI Bill, Sonny did more to help middle and lower income Americans get a college education than perhaps any other American." You can read the details of his accomplishments here, if you're interested.

About two and a half years ago, David and I were at Mississippi State one Saturday for a football game. We were wandering around campus, and I remembered that Montgomery Hall - named for Sonny - had been renovated and was being dedicated that day. We managed to get there right at the end of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and when I saw Sonny from a distance, I did a bit of a double-take. Sitting in a chair, he looked frail - not at all like I remembered him. For just a second I was sad, because I, like so many, remember a man with a spring in his step, a purpose in his stride.

But when it was time for pictures on the steps of Montgomery Hall, Sonny stood up. He had on a maroon blazer with a perfectly coordinated tie - ever the loyal Bulldog, even in his 80's - and as he gazed out at the crowd that had gathered to honor him, he looked like the same man I'd seen outside the courthouse in Meridian 25 years before...dignified, charming and humble.

It's no secret that Mississippi isn't always portrayed in a positive light by the media or by people in other parts of the country. Never mind that my home state has produced John C. Stennis, John Grisham, William Faulkner, Tennesee Williams, Morgan Freeman, Eudora Welty, Leontyne Price, B.B. King, and countless other pioneers in government, in literature, in music, in the arts, in science, and in industry.

Sonny Montgomery belongs on that list of pioneers. He went to Washington during one of the most turbulent times in Mississippi's history, and he gained the respect of the men and women who worked with him. More than that, he earned the admiration of the men and women who elected him. And he never lost it.

We will miss him.


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