STARKVILLE – It’s sad but true that many of the Mississippi State University students who walk past the bronze statue at the southwest corner of the Drill Field on a daily basis have little or no idea who Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery was or why his imposing visage guards the heart of the campus.
But older Mississippians know that perhaps no single individual ever did more to advance the cause of accessibility to higher education and to guarantee the survival of America’s volunteer armed forces than did the longtime soldier, businessman, congressman and patriot from Meridian whose ancestors were among the founding fathers of MSU.
A new book honoring Montgomery’s extraordinary life and work is set to debut later this week. Commissioned by the Montgomery Foundation and produced from the “Sonny Montgomery Collection” by the MSU Libraries, the pictorial history of Montgomery’s life was gleaned from over 13,500 photographs donated to the university by Montgomery.
The book will be donated by the Montgomery Foundation to National Guard armories and facilities, schools and institutions of higher learning, and other appropriate venues as a testament to Montgomery’s remarkable legacy.
The Montgomery Foundation was established more than a decade ago through the foresight of the former congressman, its benefactor. Montgomery’s intention was to provide a vehicle to which the bulk of his estate would be left and be used, after his death, to support and encourage his greatest interests.
The Foundation strives to carry his legacy forward as it recognizes civilian and military leaders who have excelled and made significant contributions to excellence in his or her field, encourages leadership development, education, excellence in scholarship and support of various military and veteran projects and needs. The foundation’s work is carried on by board members who knew, loved and in most cases worked with and for the late congressman.
As the Montgomery statue is a constant presence on the MSU campus, so is Montgomery’s presence still felt among the soldiers and leaders of tomorrow on the campus. At his death, Montgomery left a substantial portion of his estate to his alma mater to fund the Montgomery Scholars Program, the Montgomery Endowed Scholarship Fund, and to benefit MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library.
MSU students later funded “Sonny's statue” on the Drill Field, on which he spent many hours marching and drilling as a member of Army ROTC.
The Montgomery Foundation has announced the creation of the Montgomery Defense Leadership Awards at Mississippi State. The $5,000 scholarships will recognize the top first-year advanced Army and Air Force ROTC senior cadets. The group also established the Montgomery Political Science Leadership Award, which will provide a $5,000 scholarship for the top political science major finishing the junior year of study.
The historical record reflects that Montgomery retired in 1996 from a 41-year public service career that also included a decade in the Mississippi Senate. Following his election to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1966, Montgomery held the 3rd Congressional District office through the terms of seven presidents.
He won national acclaim for leadership in passing the Montgomery G.I. Bill. It also helped cement his honorary Capitol Hill title of “Mr. Veteran.”
Montgomery devoted three decades of his life to military service that included active duty in World War II and the Korean War. He retired from the Mississippi Army National Guard with the rank of major general. In 2005, former President George W. Bush awarded Sonny the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Sonny died May 12, 2006, at the age of 85 in his beloved Meridian. The foundation’s new book speaks volumes to the difference one person can make in the world if they hold true to their core values – as Montgomery steadfastly did.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.