A handful of her admirers gathered Monday to unveil a plaque and chair honoring the memory of the beloved principal who built Sylacauga’s Indian Valley Elementary School and went to Washington, D.C., to receive honors from the president and the secretary of education when it was named a National School of Excellence.
The Clara Lee Montgomery Chair is the 43rd chair funded through the Sylacauga Schools Foundation, representing $25,000 in gifts to the foundation in her memory.
Former Sylacauga Schools Superintendent Dr. Joe Morton, who went on to retire as Alabama’s state superintendent of education, said raising funds to support the chair was “a labor of love, but no labor at all.”
“You could talk about the high qualities that Clara Lee Montgomery possessed for days,” Morton told the 50 or 60 educators, community leaders and Montgomery relatives assembled for the unveiling. “She was a lady and she was a tremendous educator. … She set the tone and she set the bar for whatever went on under the roof of her school.”
Marcella Gooch, who succeeded Montgomery in the principal’s office at Indian Valley, said she and retired Mountainview School Principal Lynn Hodges were talking one day about the foundation chair plaques displayed in the lobby at Sylacauga High School, and the tribute it is to the community and its school system to receive such support from individuals, families and corporations.
“We decided there was one missing,” Gooch said. “Then there were two stubborn women working on the same thing.”
Gooch said it was a “magical journey” as they recruited committee members to work on raising funds for the chair, then making community contacts to do the fundraising.
“Whenever we mentioned it to anyone, their response was always, ‘I am so glad you are doing that. What can I do to help? Without exception,” Gooch said. “If you knew her, you loved her.”
Morton seconded that, saying that on fund-raising calls, “Everybody said yes, and then they wanted to talk about Clara Lee.
“She was such a unique school person. She had all the best qualities imaginable,” Morton said.
Gooch said Montgomery “loved this town and each of you, and she loved children. She lived her life for her school and the children, to make the lives of children – yours and mine – better.”
Prior to the ceremony, Gooch pointed out that the foundation donations in Montgomery’s memory came from teachers, students and friends. “This is a community plaque, and I think that’s very special.”
Others involved in the fundraising committee were Lister Procter, Morton and his wife, Margaret Morton, Dr. Phil Hammonds, Jack Jackson, Priscilla Cleveland, Clarene Jackson, and Montgomery’s lifelong friend and cousin-in-law, Patsy Shuttleworth.
Montgomery grew up in Sylacauga, and graduated from the high school where the plaque bearing her name was unveiled.
After graduating from Birmingham-Southern College with highest honors, she earned her Master’s, AA and EDS degrees from the University of Montevallo, said her daughter, Dottie Montgomery.
She started her teaching career at Sylacauga’s Pinecrest Elementary School, and taught second grade there until becoming principal of Main Avenue Elementary School around 1971, her daughter said.
Former Superintendent Dr. Ellis Porch sent her all over the United States to learn about the innovative open-classroom approach that was gaining popularity then, and after Morton became the superintendent in Sylacauga, Indian Valley was opened in 1981 with Montgomery in the principal’s office.
“She was innovative and very cutting-edge,” her daughter said.
She was recognized as an outstanding principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
As much as her family appreciates the attention given to the chair honoring Montgomery’s memory, “This would embarrass her tremendously because she was so humble,” Dottie Montgomery said.
“She would get accolades and she would always say, ‘It’s because I have such good teachers,’ or ‘It’s because the children worked so hard,’” she said.
Foundation Board Chairman Greg Atkinson unveiled the plaque and chair with help from Dottie Montgomery and her brother, Neil. Their sister, Martha, lives in North Carolina and was not able to attend.
Contact Bill Kimber at email@example.com