Joseph Montgomery celebrated turning 90 in a rather unusual way. On the cold Sunday morning of January 7, the Newington resident gave away gifts on his birthday instead of receiving them.
Ninety gifts, to be exact. Montgomery handed out 90 $1 bills, with a message: “I’m celebrating my 90th birthday,” Montgomery said each time he handed over the bill. “I’m doing a random act of kindness and I want you to have this $1 bill.”
Recipients at Three Tree Coffee on South Main Street in Statesboro where Montgomery’s birthday morning began were shocked and elated as Montgomery made his rounds among the coffee patrons. Humbly approaching each table, Montgomery first said, “Excuse me for bothering you,” before he began his brief monologue.
One young man stood abruptly before Montgomery finished speaking and pulled him into his arms in a bear hug. A group of kids asked Montgomery to pose with them for a picture. The barista couldn’t stop grinning when she received her gift.
Each person’s eyes lit up in delight and smiles spread across faces when Montgomery shared his small gift and kindness.
Montgomery’s children came up with the unique idea and shared it with their dad. Dr. Michelle Thompson flew in from New Orleans to help with the event, and her brother, Chad, who also lives in Newington now, helped out, too.
Thompson accompanied her dad to the coffee shop, then they both met Chad at Ole Time Country Buffet in Sylvania for lunch, where Montgomery distributed more dollar bills.
‘Random acts of kindness’
Just a couple of months ago, Montgomery hadn’t thought a lot about what “random acts of kindness’’ truly meant.
He shared with his daughter on the phone that someone in front of him had paid for his purchases at a dollar store. “She left without giving me a chance to thank her – why would she do that,” he asked his daughter.
“Dad, she was doing a ‘random act of kindness,’” Thompson said she told her father.
That was new terminology to Montgomery, but not a new concept.
“So many people helped me through the years,” Montgomery said, looking back on his 90 years. Montgomery recalled how some of his fellow students in the two-room schoolhouse he attended helped him with his studies.
“Math was a heck of a challenge for me,” said Montgomery. “One teacher couldn’t get around to everybody. I decided to ask kids to help me that could understand it better than me.”
Recently, Montgomery made an effort to find the woman who’d helped him the most and personally visited her. He told her about his life and said, “It all happened because you helped me with math.” Random acts of kindness – on both sides.
Opportunity to attend school
Montgomery remembered that the opportunity to attend school for him as an African American child in Lexington, Mississippi was an act of kindness by a Jewish family. The family bought land to build schools “for colored kids, while the white kids were bused to a different school,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said, “A white family lived near us, and the man would sometimes give me a ride in the mornings for school, seven miles into town.”
That act of kindness was not lost on Montgomery as a young, black student in 1943.
Montgomery graduated high school and attended Jackson College for Colored Teachers in Jackson, Mississippi, and eventually spent two years in the military.
Following his brother to Detroit, Michigan, Montgomery worked on the assembly lines for Ford Motor Company and Cadillac Motor Company. Taking a job with General Electric Company after technical college, Montgomery moved to Utica, New York and worked there for 13 years.
“We didn’t want to live in the big city of Utica, so we lived in Bridgewater, a town of only about 600,” Montgomery said.
By then, Montgomery and his former wife, Carrie, had started their family that would eventually include: Joseph Jr., now deceased; Brenda Marmon, Phoenix; Dr. Mark Montgomery, Sauquot, New York; Dr. Michelle Thompson, New Orleans; Curtis Montgomery, Bridgewater; T. Chad Montgomery, Newington, and Kisha Montgomery, Oakland, California.
Montgomery worked briefly with a computer company after GE and took courses from Syracuse University in Utica, earning a BS Degree in Physics and eventually a Masters Degree in Counselor Education. He then spent 22 years in the school system.
He had come a long way from the elementary student who missed the first six weeks of each school year because he was picking cotton in order to pay for school books and clothes.
“I used to think to myself while I was picking cotton, ‘I want a job where I can sit behind a desk.’ I did not want to be in poverty all of my life.”
Montgomery worked hard to achieve his goal, typically working two jobs and going to school and helping take care of the kids. He believed hard work and an education were the keys to successfully rising above poverty.
Coming to Newington
When Montgomery decided to “get back to the country,” he found himself purchasing a 200-acre farm in Newington, near his son Chad.
And what does he do with his time now?
Montgomery said, “I’m a health nut. I think a lot; I read a lot. Keep an eye on the stock market. I do things I enjoy, and sometimes, I just do nothing.”
Montgomery enjoyed every minute of handing out the 90 $1 bills.
Perhaps one of the most interesting exchanges during his birthday mission came about when he approached one patron at Three Tree. Pastor Donald Chavers of Statesboro’s Agape Worship Center, was reading his Bible and going over notes for the sermon he planned to preach that morning.
When Chavers found out it was Montgomery’s birthday, he not only led the entire group of patrons in singing “Happy Birthday,” he serenaded Montgomery with a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Later, Chavers told Montgomery’s daughter how special the act was to him.
“For a long time, I’ve kept dollar bills in my Bible to give out the others as the Lord leads me, as a reminder that says, ‘The Lord hasn’t forgotten you,’” Chavers said. “Mr. Montgomery’s dollar gave me a chance to feel what other people feel and … wow!”
Chavers says he plans to keep Montgomery’s dollar in his Bible as his own reminder that the Lord hasn’t forgotten him, either.
One final message
And just before leaving, one recipient handed Montgomery the sleeve from her coffee cup to give to her dad. Written on the sleeve were these words:
“Mr. Joseph, Happy Birthday! Today is the anniversary of my losing the most important man in my life, the man who raised me and taught me about unconditional love and joy. It is always a hard day for me. His name was Joseph. Thank you! I can’t help but feel connected through your celebration of your life. You were MY gift today.”
Ninety small gestures – mere $1 bills – for each year of Joseph Montgomery’s life, but they were priceless gifts a birthday gentleman offered on that Sunday.