Former Rep. Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery, who during his 30 years in Congress pushed through a modernized GI Bill that boosted recruiting for the all-volunteer force, died Friday. He was 85.
Montgomery, who underwent surgery to correct a bowel obstruction in December, died at Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center in his native Meridian after a lengthy illness, said Kyle Steward, the former congressman’s spokesman. He had been hospitalized since May 7.
On Thursday, the House voted to name a national defense authorization bill in his honor.
A conservative Democrat, Montgomery represented an east-central Mississippi district in Congress from 1967 to 1997, and for 13 years chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
He himself was a 35-year military veteran, serving in the Army in Europe during World War II, then returned to active duty during the Korean War as part of the National Guard. He retired from the Mississippi National Guard in 1980 with the rank of major general.
The GI Bill has existed in some form since 1944, when it was passed to provide education and other benefits for returning World War II veterans. It was modernized for a peacetime, volunteer force as the Montgomery GI Bill in 1984. Among other things, the Montgomery Bill was the first to offer education benefits to National Guard and Reserve personnel.
'A tremendous incentive'
In a 1993 speech, Montgomery recalled the struggle to get the bill passed. He said that while all the GI bills have helped veterans readjust to civilian life, his has the added purpose of being “a tremendous incentive for bright young men and women to join our armed forces.”
“Smart, motivated young men and women just weren’t going into the military,” he said.
He recalled telling an opponent of the bill during a late-night House-Senate conference that “if I had packaged this program like a missile, shaped it like a cone, filled it with gunpowder and stuck a fuse on it so it could blow up the world, it would pass this conference in a minute.”
Montgomery won the day, and President Reagan signed the bill into law in October 1984.
Under the New GI Bill, veterans with two years of active service who contributed $1,200 of their own money were eligible to receive tuition payments of $300 a month for 36 months. The Army and Navy then kicked in an additional payment to bring the total benefits to roughly $17,000. The payments have been raised since then.
In a 1990 White House ceremony attended by Montgomery, the first President Bush, a good friend of Montgomery’s, said the version enacted in 1984 was “an important component in the success of America’s all-volunteer forces” and “among the most practical and cost-efficient programs ever devised.”
During and after the Vietnam War, Montgomery made 14 trips to Southeast Asia to support the troops and then later to determine the fate of POW/MIAs.
In 1990, he was part of a congressional delegation that went to Korea to receive the bodies of five American servicemen killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s. The event was widely seen as a gesture by communist North Korea to improve relations with the United States.
“This is a historic occasion ... recognition for Americans who fought in Korea, recognition that has not come for 40 years,” Montgomery said at the time.
The Boll Weevils
Montgomery was also part of a largely Southern group of conservative Democrats, dubbed the Boll Weevils for the tiny beetle that devours cotton plants, who helped Republican President Reagan enact his economic agenda.
He helped establish the House Prayer Breakfast Group and was a faithful participant in the weekly gatherings for more than 35 years. In 2000, the House of Representatives named the meeting room in the U.S. Capitol used for the gatherings in his honor.
He first won the seat in 1966, first defeating three opponents in the Democratic primary, then two more in the general election. He succeeded Rep. Prentiss Walker, who ran for U.S. Senate.
He easily won 14 more terms, usually getting more than 80 percent of the vote. But over the years the district — overwhelmingly Democratic in the old days of the “Solid South” — became heavily Republican. Even Montgomery’s winning total dropped to 68 percent in 1994 from 81 percent two years earlier. In 1996, a Republican, Chip Pickering, was elected to replace him.
Pickering paid tribute to him Friday, calling him “a Mississippi statesman with a 30-year dedication to our armed forces and veterans.”
“His legacy of public service stretches across generations and across party lines and is a testimony to his vision of strong America that honors our commitments to military service,” Pickering said.
Montgomery served under seven presidents and was particularly close to the first President Bush, a fellow congressman with him back in the late 1960s. Montgomery was a frequent visitor to the White House during his presidency and even spent Christmas holidays with the Bush family at Camp David, Md.
In 2005, Montgomery was one of 14 people awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by the second President Bush.
Born in Meridian in 1920, Montgomery joined the Army immediately after graduating from Mississippi State College (now University) in 1943. Serving in the European Theater during World War II, he won the Bronze Star for Valor and Legion of Merit.
A lifelong home
Montgomery never married, and during his many travels always considered Meridian his true home.
“I’ve been active and have not walked away from Meridian. I plan to be buried here — but not yet,” he said in 1999.
Montgomery operated a successful insurance business in Meridian before being elected to the Mississippi State Senate in 1956. He served in the Legislature for 10 years before being elected to Congress in 1966. Among his accomplishments in Jackson was creation of the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television.
Montgomery remained in Washington and operated a lobbying firm for several years after leaving Congress in 1997. He retired in 2004 and returned to Meridian.
In Jackson, the Veterans Affairs Hospital bears his name, and last year an Army gunnery range at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg was named for him.