From Quiet Life to Spotlight; Montgomery has His Alma Mater at Heart
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer
Rufus Montgomery was doing very well at living what many who know him describe as “a very private life.”
But his name has become a household word in Tallahassee, if not the nation, in the last year.
The conversation isn’t about him being an Army veteran who served in two recent wars – Desert Storm and Desert Shield – as a combat engineer. Neither is the topic about his two stints as a university administrator.
Most don’t even know about his influence on state politics.
These days Montgomery is best known as the former chairman of the Florida A&M University Board of Trustees, which has been at odds with President Elmira Mangum. From day one it was obviously clear that Mangum and Montgomery were miles apart on philosophical differences about how to run FAMU.
The strained relationship between the two reached the fever-pitch when two votes failed to remove Mangum recently.
A firestorm erupted in the community over the attempted ouster. Amidst the turmoil, Montgomery stepped down as chairman of the BOT, while retaining a seat on the board.
“I think that he may have made the right decision so that he could get out of the way and whatever the future course will be will bear out whether he was right or wrong,” said former FAMU president Frederick Humphries, one of Montgomery’s mentors when he was a student.
“Given the way the environment has moved in terms of the evaluation of why Rufus was committed to the course of action that he was pursuing really caused a different set of reactions in the various communities of FAMU,” Humphries said. “People were not rightfully evaluating what he was — in his mind and his heart — doing for the good of FAMU.”
Montgomery’s decision to step down hasn’t quelled the mounting concerns over the contentious relationship between the Board and president.
But Montgomery is steadfast about keeping his life simple. It’s the way he was brought up by parents who have been married for more than four decades.
They stressed education and respect for others, he said.
Montgomery knew at an early age that college would be in his future. His father, Rufus, Sr., insisted on it. His father’s influence didn’t stop there, obvious by the Montgomery’s decision to enlist in the military as the older Montgomery did.
They only disagree on political affiliation – his father is a Democrat and he is a Republican.
Their relationship couldn’t be stronger, though.
“I had all I needed in my father,” Montgomery said. “I’ve been blessed with great mentors over the years, but none greater than my father.”
Montgomery, 44, was born in Fort Bragg, N.C. He eventually moved to Pensacola. Growing up he was the typical teenager with athletic abilities. He chose basketball and football.
Neither interested him as a career choice. By the time he got to FAMU it was clear that business and politics took priority.
He earned a Master of Applied Social Science and Bachelor of Science degrees from FAMU. Currently CEO of his business as a lobbyist, his background includes working as a legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives before leaving Capitol Hill to serve as executive director of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education.
For awhile after returning to Florida he was director of African American outreach efforts for then-candidate Jeb Bush’s successful campaign in 1998. His effort is credited with a 350 percent increase of African American supporters for Bush.
Despite the political influences, Montgomery hedged on saying whether running for an elected office is in his future.
“There are different roles for different people,” Montgomery said. “I believe that I’m more effective working to help elect people to office and to provide counsel for those who hold office than to run for office myself.”
Montgomery is taking the latest upheaval between the Board and Mangum in strides. He insists he isn’t bothered by the public perception as much as the future of his alma mater.
Keeping FAMU’s business in order and his passion for education is what drives him, his supporters say. Rev. R.B. Holmes, a former board member, echoed Humphries’ stance on Montgomery’s decision to leave the Board’s top position.
“I think this community must realize that Mr. Montgomery has the best interest of FAMU at heart,” said Holmes. “He was simply trying to do his job.”
“As a trustee, he must be totally focused on the governance of the university and that includes the financial integrity and the academic environment of the university. Rufus is probably one of the strongest voices to articulate the mission of FAMU. We need to be careful of what we asked for.”
Montgomery estimated that prior to stepping down as chairman he spent almost 40 hours each week on business related to FAMU. That includes fund-raising and recruiting for the university.
“He was not out to hurt the university or hurt the president,” said Sandra Scott, a member of Georgia’s General Assembly and friend of Montgomery. “I think eventually they will see. He just wants what’s best for the (students) and the university.”
Scott was especially concerned about claims that Montgomery used his position to personally attack Mangum, although he voted to hire her.
“I think he is a genuine person; a caring person,” said Scott, a Tallahassee native and FAMU alumnus. “I don’t think it was a personal attack. I think that’s where the media and people have tried to take it as if it was a personal attack.”
While one member of the Board resigned amidst the controversy, with others saying that the divide between the Board and Mangum is irreparable, Scott said a meeting of the minds could resolve some of the problems.
“A lot of times we get blown out of proportion because we disagree, but people have to understand that we are born in this world to agree to disagree. Everything is not going to be like we want.”
Humphries saw Montgomery’s zeal for the university early. He recalled how Montgomery formed a group of collegiate Republicans.
That and Montgomery’s push to invigorate student body participation on campus impressed Humphries.
“Talking about ideas and exchanging views,” Humphries said, were Montgomery’s focus. “He spent time observing what I was doing from a distance and evaluating it. We had conversations about that.”
“He was dedicated and really wanted to get on with his life. He really cared about FAMU.”