Today, Congressman Michael Guest (MS-03) honored the 100th anniversary of the late Representative Sonny Montgomery’s birth with the following statement:
“The State of Mississippi is known for many things – its magnolias, catfish, southern charm, and Sonny Montgomery. Today, August 5, is the 100th anniversary of his birth and I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to this legendary figure in Mississippi history.
Congressman Sonny Montgomery was a soldier, a public servant, a Veteran, and a southern gentleman. His friends called him “Mr. Veteran” and “Mr. National Guard.” He loved his family, his friends, his university, his state, his country and our God.
No one could meet Sonny Montgomery and not love his infectious smile and genuine warmth. He had an easy grin that made almost everyone he encountered feel like an old and trusted friend. While he travelled around the world, everyone knew Sonny’s home was Meridian, Mississippi. And Mississippians knew and loved Sonny and they will for many generations to come.
Sonny Montgomery was guided by faith and principle. His strong character and integrity endeared him to many no matter their political allegiances or social status. He was genuinely well liked on Capitol Hill, and no one on either side of the aisle ever questioned his sincerity, his integrity, or his independence. Sonny believed that partisanship should never get in the way of what he saw was good for the nation.
His philosophy for life and leadership focused on faith, patriotism, relationships and perseverance. This is what Sonny Montgomery called “staying the course.”
After graduating from Mississippi State University in 1943, Sonny Montgomery was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He served with the 12th Armored Division in Europe during World War II and earned the Bronze Star Medal with “V” for Valor device for capturing a German machine gun nest.
After World War II, he joined the Mississippi Army National Guard. In 1951, he served on active duty again during the Korean War as a member of the 31st Infantry Division. In May 1961, as a Lieutenant Colonel, Sonny escorted a group of Freedom Riders from the Alabama border to Jackson. Our late colleague John Lewis was on that bus. Sonny retired as a major general in 1980 after 35 years of military service.
On January 3, 1967, Sonny Montgomery was sworn in as a Congressman from the district I represent today. Sonny’s greatest legislative victory is the enactment of the bill which bears his name – the Montgomery GI Bill. As a World War II Veteran, he believed the country should provide educational benefits to its service members, and the combination of military service and a college degree would make these individuals valuable assets to the country. Sonny Montgomery saw the educational shortfall as a direct threat to America’s military readiness and national security and used the GI Bill to reinvigorate the volunteer base of America’s military.
In October 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Montgomery GI Bill. Under the new education benefits, 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 new GI Bill was also the first to offer education benefits to National Guard and Reserve personnel.
Another of Sonny Montgomery’s achievements was the creation of the Department of Veterans Affairs. His bipartisan efforts elevated the Veterans Administration into an official cabinet department in March 1989. President George H. W. Bush offered Montgomery the position of secretary of the new department, but he decided to continue to serve the people of Mississippi in Congress.
As freshmen members of the 90th Congress, Sonny Montgomery and George H. W. Bush began a friendship that lasted until the Congressman passed away. It is said this bipartisan coalition was only challenged during their “do or die” dollar a game paddleball matches in the House gym with more bragging rights on the line. President Bush wrote, “While I served in Congress and after that in the Executive Branch of government, Sonny remained a close confidant, a man whose judgement I always trusted, a man whose friendship gave me comfort when the going got tough.” Sonny was a frequent visitor to the White House and often spent holidays with the Bush family.
Sonny Montgomery served along with the administrations of seven presidents during his three decades in the House chamber. His legacy of public service stretches across generations and party lines and is a testament to America’s strong national defense. Sonny retired from Congress in 1997 and returned to Meridian. Sonny was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2005.
Sonny Montgomery was a loyal son to Mississippi, from his birth to his passing, he was one of ours. But his work and legacy belong to America. We are all indebted to Sonny for making our great nation what it is today.
Sonny Montgomery said, “Patriotism is a pretty simple word, but also a beautiful word to most Americans.” Sonny Montgomery exemplified patriotism. The gentleman from Mississippi is recognized and remembered on the 100th anniversary of his birth.”
A copy of speech in the Congressional Record can be found here.