MARY SANCHEZ

Sam Montague, age 101 ‘and a half,’ has been a campaigner all his life

Updated: 2013-12-10T05:22:06Z

By MARY SANCHEZ

The Kansas City Star

Sam Montague gingerly handles the yellowed newspaper article from a stack of clippings and begins reading aloud.

“‘Sam Montague Has Patriotic Idea,’” he says, starting with the headline, before beginning moving on to the story itself, an effort to spur patriotism and civic awareness.

As he continues deeper into the text, recognition pops.

“Sam Montague, that’s me!” he says, smiling.

Montague is 101 “and a half,” says his daughter Lisa Montague, who helps care for him in her Overland Park town house.

When a father lives that long, the half-years become vitally important to count. Dementia has taken some of his ability to recall the events of his life, but it’s a long list and deserves recognition.

Sam Montague is a name you probably do not know — but you should.

In the 1960s, The Star’s political cartoonist used to regularly sketch Montague because he was instrumental in much news of the day.

Like when he was the campaign director when Kansas City finally passed the earnings tax. He worked on the bond issues that funded the international airport and what became Truman Medical Center. He helped draw the People-to-People program into the private sector, away from the government (after being encouraged to do so by Joyce C. Hall, whom he worked for through the Hallmark Foundation).

He also helped promote the passage of the public accommodations ordinance that desegregated the city’s hotels and restaurants. The work, he later wrote, was the one campaign “that has given me the greatest feeling of achievement.”

And when organizers of the 1961 rededication of the Liberty Memorial needed to mend a historic rift between former Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to gain their participation in the ceremonies, they called on Montague. He got the job done. Montague convinced Truman to accept a visit from Eisenhower at the Truman Library in Independence as a military gesture of a soldier to his senior officer.

Passionately bullish on promoting Kansas City, he convinced city officials to fund — and later he led — what was then called the Kansas City Tourism Commission. He was the one who proposed that Kansas City be dubbed the City of Fountains.

He helped found the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. And in the late 1960s, he threatened to quit if the organization didn’t allow women reporters. Two reporters were being shown the door, The Kansas City Call’s Lucile Bluford and Helen Gott, later Helen Gray, The Star’s longtime religion editor.

Even Montague’s arrival in Missouri is interesting history.

Montague was among seven students famously expelled from Louisiana State University in 1934 by Sen. Huey Long. They had angered the fiery Long by refusing to agree that the student newspaper could be censored.

The University of Missouri’s journalism school offered to take them in, and it was from there that Montague graduated. It was the beginning of his short career as a photojournalist and his longer one in public relations, as a fundraiser, a generalist with savvy people skills.

Because he was enrolled in the ROTC during college, he is among a special category of World War II veterans still living, those who were soldiers before the war began.

He was stationed 30 months in the Panama Canal Zone. As a safety pilot, Montague was the extra person who would be able to take over a plane, navigate for other pilots and take surveillance photos.

Among his pre-Kansas City experiences is the period in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when he was in Mexico City, first helping to contain the spread of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock and later as the press attache for the U.S. Embassy. It is why his memorabilia includes photo albums with his early works: portraits of famed painter Diego Rivera and several Mexican presidents.

Some of those memories are easier for him to comment on. For reasons of the mind and aging, his fluent Spanish is at times stronger than his English. But Margie, his wife of nearly 70 years, fills in many of the details, vividly recalling their years together and the events surrounding the births of the couple’s four children.

“A lot of changes have happened in a period of time that you don’t know will go by so fast,” she said.

Her husband confuses their connection at times, once commenting to his daughter when he thought his wife couldn’t hear, “She really likes me!”

Among his memorabilia are stacks of framed proclamations, one from nearly every state. They are remnants of Montague’s effort to get Patriots Day widely recognized.

Now, his daughter is searching for a final footprint on Kansas City for her father, a place he has called home for more than five decades. He was a passionate cheerleader for reviving downtown, but his health began to fail before efforts really took off.

He has never seen the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts or the Power & Light District.

“If my dad was going to do something as a community service at this time, it would probably be for veterans,” she said. “But he can’t reach out and do it himself.”

So she is.

Lisa Montague is a staunch advocate for her father’s health care. Daily, it seems, she finds a way to manage the idiosyncrasies of the bureaucracy in the Department of Veterans Affairs. She’s concerned, as her father is, for veterans who do not have family members to help them through the complicated paperwork.

In 1982, he convinced President Ronald Reagan to make a formal announcement honoring veterans, a halftime radio address played at college football games. The effort sparked because Montague was upset at how Vietnam veterans were disrespected.

Because her father still enjoys reading, Lisa Montague often writes with a marker on an erasable board to communicate with him. To help him understand why a columnist was visiting, she wrote:

“You are an old soldier.

You are a pre-WWII veteran.

There are only about 300 like you alive in the U.S.

You’re special!”

The 300 is a bit of a guess. No one knows for sure. But Montague is among the oldest veterans receiving home care by the V.A. in Leavenworth.

Montague’s patriotism began early. He was born on Memorial Day, 1912, although it was then called Decoration Day.

He learned patriotism and civic action young, a fact he writes of in a biography his daughter pressed him to pen when he was 90.

“We learned what our duties and responsibilities were as citizens so we would protect and preserve, and pass along our rights, and liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution,” he wrote. “While still a tot, I can recall being taught to place my right hand over my heart when the American flag passed by, and how to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.”

In the final pages, he wrote of his own legacy, which he then saw as not completely fulfilled.

“My efforts to help make the world a better place resulted in small improvements in the general scheme of things. The Jewish ideal, ‘To help another person is to repair the world,’ seems to have been my guiding principle. I wish I had been able to do more!”

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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