50 Influencers: Walt Montgomery, fulfillment through education

INA, Ill. (Aug. 26, 2017) - For more than a decade, Rend Lake College has been providing local high school students with the ability to take free high school courses at RLC campuses to help students who have fallen behind with their coursework an opportunity to catch back up.

While a similar program had been in existence the year before, as part of a grant, it was the hiring of Dr. Walt Montgomery as Director of Alternative and Optional Education that cemented a force that would go on to impact hundreds of local students for the better by helping them graduate high school and even go on to college. 

Montgomery started his career at Rend Lake College in October 1996 following and already full career in education that had most recently capped with an early retirement from Benton Consolidated High School in 1995, where he had served as superintendent.

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Shortly after his retirement, Montgomery was approached by then RLC President Mark Kern who told him about an initiative that he was trying to launch. Kern asked the former superintendent if he would be willing to discuss the potential program.

Kern was wanting to cultivate an initiative that identified in-district, high school students at risk of failing or dropping out and providing them with a support network and free high school classes to keep them on track while acclimating them to the college atmosphere.

Kern hoped that the program would help show these students that college wasn’t a place to be scared of or feel was out of reach.

“We talked for quite a while. I had to take a trip. Mark [Kern] said that’s fine, but you are starting the day you get back. So, we agreed, and when I got back we got the ball rolling,” Montgomery said.

His first order of business was approaching all the district high school to explain the program to administration, teachers and guidance counselors.

That first summer, Montgomery’s work paid off. The inaugural class launched with 62 students from around the district, thanks in large part to Montgomery’s history in education.

“In June (1997) we started with 62. And it just continued to grow and grow. I only meant to stay on for one year, but then fall we had another large class and again in the spring. By the next summer we were up to around 90 students,” Montgomery explained.

While the program had been envisioned to take place on RLC’s campus to help students get acclimated to the college atmosphere, the amount of students coming from Mt. Vernon High School required that a branch of the program to be opened at the RLC MarketPlace campus, facilitating the swell in demand.

Shortly thereafter, another expansion was launched in Pinckneyville.

“At one point, we had over 300 students taking part in the program. But then, Mt. Vernon had some changes in administration. In those early 2000s, we had hundreds of students taking part in the program at the MarketPlace. But, the high school decided they wanted to do their own version of the program, so they dropped out and started one up,” Montgomery explained.

“That brought our numbers back down a little, but we were still running over 100 students. It’s been a good program. I’ve really enjoyed my 20 years of it.”

“I had been doing this for a while. I was supposed to have been retired. My wife was asking why I didn’t quit and enjoy my retirement. But, we were out this one time, and there was this girl from Benton. We worked so hard with her. She had had a terrible home life. She was very bright, but she needed encouragement, and she needed help,” Montgomery said.

“One night I had technology classes going on. I would come check on the night classes to see if they needed anything. So, my wife said she wanted to come along. We started down the hallway and this young lady comes running up and just has the biggest grin on her face. She said she just graduated high school and was officially enrolled in college. She said that if it hadn’t been for the program and everyone involved that she wouldn’t be here now. She looked me in the eye with pride on her face and said ‘I’m going to amount to something.’ My wife said she would never ask me to quit again.”

Montgomery’s wife never did press him to leave the program again, but recent health issues forced him to take a step back. He retired from RLC after the 2016 fall semester.

“I loved my time with Rend Lake. It was such a great place to work. There’s nothing better to cap off my career than what I did at the college,” he expressed.

It was a final professional chapter that Montgomery could really be proud of. His own journey through education was far from the norm, and he has a passion for helping others work towards achieving their dream.

Montgomery and his wife married young, fresh out of high school. Right after graduation, he went into construction but decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in that field. So, he went to SIU, not as a student, but a member of their Physical Plant staff as a painter.

Instead of the traditional route of a student working part time, Montgomery flipped it, working full-time at the college and squeezing in a class or two when the opportunity presented itself. It took him nine years on that pace to finish his undergraduate degree in agricultural economics.

After finally completing that bachelor’s degree, Montgomery changed positions at the college, allowing him more flexibility and letting him pursue his master’s degree. He jumped at the opportunity, finishing his graduate degree in a single year.

He wanted to keep the ball rolling, so he went on to a doctoral program at the University of Tennessee. But, due to an economic slowdown and a young program, Montgomery ran into several roadblocks and was forced to change directions yet again. He came back to Southern Illinois and began teaching high school mathematics.

He didn’t complete is doctorate until he was 50, after teaching for 15 years at Goreville.

After finally complete his latest degree, Montgomery took a superintendent position at Ewing before moving to Christopher and then finally taking the BCHS superintendent position, all of that before he even began his career at RLC.

“We have helped a lot of kids graduate high school and find something for them here at Rend Lake College, whether it was in our vocational programs or getting their generals take care of so they could continue on,” Montgomery said.


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