Farewell to Ms. Montgomery, the school’s institutional memory

Ms. Montgomery receiving the Staff Recognition Award in 2013, presented by Dr. Cox – Ms. Dawn Blake

Walking by the headmaster’s office, one cannot help but notice the woman sitting behind the desk, dressed fashionably, offering candy with a warm smile. For the past thirty-five years, Assistant to the Headmaster and Secretary of the Board of Trustees Ms. Candy Montgomery has been directing behind the scenes of the administration.

     She has not always sat behind the desk where she sits now. Starting in 1985, during the tenure of the fifth headmaster, Davis R. Parker (1966–1987), Ms. Montgomery joined the Haverford community in the admissions office. 

     “And then when Mr. [Bo] Dixon came, I moved from the admissions office to the headmaster’s office,” Ms. Montgomery said. “So I was with Mr. Dixon, then Dr. Healey, Dr. Cox, and now Dr. Nagl.”

     In the office, Ms. Montgomery has been in charge of an endless list of tasks. First, she welcomes people who are meeting with Dr. John Nagl, the current and ninth headmaster, or Mr. Thorburn, the assistant headmaster.

     Dr. Nagl said, “She is stuck in there with Mr. Thorburn and with me, and her job is to provide a human face when people come to see [us]. They’re often nervous or anxious parents, and she puts them at their ease and makes them feel comfortable.”

     Aside from greeting visitors, Ms. Montgomery manages the headmaster’s loaded schedule. She coordinates meetings, records notes, and keeps the headmaster on track.

     “She makes sure I am where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there, manages my calendar, makes sure I get the work done that I’m supposed to do, reminds me of my deadlines, and coordinates the meetings of the leadership team of the school,” Dr. Nagl said.

     Ms. Montgomery’s accumulation of knowledge over her career means she knows how to deal with any circumstance. Ms. Kathy Stevenson, a published essayist and wife of Dr. Joseph Cox, the former and eighth headmaster, reflected on Ms. Montgomery’s knack for her job. 

Dr. Cox and Ms. Stevenson in an interview – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     “She’s had a lot [of headmasters to serve], and she has the institutional memory of the school. In her position, she sees everybody from faculty to students to teachers.”

“…she [would] raise her eyebrows and you knew that there was something else going on. She understood.”

Dr. Joseph Cox

     Dr. Cox added that her institutional memory also allows her to see behind any sort of disorder. Ms. Montgomery knows when things are out of place.

     “She might come in, and she might have made an appointment with somebody, and then she [would] raise her eyebrows and you knew that there was something else going on. She understood,” Dr. Cox said. “You know, some people are very ‘people smart,’ and I think that Candy is very people smart. She knew when people were doing things that they shouldn’t be doing, and she would keep them on track. She would help with, you know, maybe putting certain problems in context too.”

     The past headmasters have trusted Ms. Montgomery’s insight and good sense. To Dr. Cox and others, she was a valuable advisor.

     “She was a full member of the administrative team. She was pretty much an equal partner and respected by everybody and trusted by everybody. That’s probably the most important thing: the trust that she would want to do the right thing and then be very discreet,” Dr. Cox said. 

     In addition to her presence in the headmaster’s office, Ms. Montgomery also serves as the secretary to the Board of Trustees, a group of 29 trustees and the headmaster, that makes the strategic decisions for the school.

     “She is the connective tissue between the school and the Board, and the Board has a bunch of committees that meet, and she schedules all their meetings,” Dr. Nagl said. 

     Despite the heavy daily workload and the stress that comes with the importance of her work and schedule, Ms. Montgomery has still looked forward to her job every day for the past thirty-five years. The engagement she receives in the community from both faculty and students sustains her passion for the job.

     “I like it because, for the most part, it’s a happy place to be,” Ms. Montgomery said. “At the same time, it’s nice when the days are over and the weekend comes. But [what keeps me going is] people when they’re walking in the halls or outside, for the most part, they look at you and say hello. A lot of people don’t have that if they go to an office or if they go on public transportation. People don’t catch each other’s eye and say ‘good morning’ or ‘have a nice day.’”

     The reason Ms. Montgomery is always smiling, Ms. Stevenson noted, lies in her sense of humor.

A cutout of Ms. Montgomery in Haverford spirit wear in her office – courtesy of Ms. Candy Montgomery

     “The thing I always loved about Candy is that she’s really funny. I mean we could find a way to laugh about anything, and we had so many crazy things happen during our tenure that we just had to sometimes just laugh. She’s really good at that,” Ms. Stevenson said. “Even though it seemed like chaos around us, she never seemed to let that show.”

     Even during the 2011 earthquake that rocked the Philadelphia area, Ms. Montgomery was able to find humor in the situation.

     “We were in the new building, and Candy was really indignant, and she said, ‘What are you doing in there?’ She thought I was dancing around my office and making everything shake,” Dr. Cox said. “She thought I was causing the earthquake.”

     Another reason why Ms. Montgomery is such a good companion is her aptitude for organization and planning. After decades of arranging the busiest schedules, she is able to take on any range of projects. Most important is Ms. Montgomery’s composure throughout it all.

     Ms. Stevenson said, “She’s always balancing a lot of different people who need things like right then, and she never seems flustered. I mean we had so many events at the headmaster’s house when we were there—over a fifteen-year period we had probably hundreds of events at our home—and she was my go-to person to get the graduation ceremony, all the dinners we have with alumni, alumni weekend at our house, just everything that happened at our home, she and I organized. Everything flowed from me and her working together. So she was instrumental in all that.”

     Her combination of lightheartedness with incredible attentiveness in her work is most valued by the headmasters she has served. 

     “She is a wonderful combination of professional and happy, and it’s hard to find someone who can do both of those things. She’s very very good at what she does,” Dr. Nagl said.

     Whether engaging with students, faculty, or visitors, Ms. Montgomery maintains a welcoming, caring, and gracious demeanor. 

     “She’s very kind,” Dr. Cox said. “She always thought about other people, and it was important for you to be thinking that way. She always tried to help. She always was there too to try to make things as good as they could possibly be… to make the school as good as it could be.”

     Ms. Montgomery’s commitment to the school is clearly evident after serving more than half of the headmasters. She has spent the vast majority of her career at Haverford, guiding headmasters and helping the Board of Trustees. 

     Dr. Cox said, “[Her dedication is] complete. She obviously had to suffer through several headmasters, and she was always there and always ready and a little bit like the duck and on water, you know, paddling very fast underwater, not letting people see all the stress and work that she did to make things go smoothly.”

     Her love for the community has encouraged her to return to Haverford each year.

     “The boys and the community that Haverford houses are so nice,” Ms. Montgomery said.

     Five headmasters later, she decided that this year was going to be the last. Dr. Nagl recalled what Ms. Montgomery told him when he first joined. 

     “She had said really since she met me that she had at that point broken in several heads of school, and she said that I was going to be the last one. She was going to teach me my job and then she was going to stop working so hard,” Dr. Nagl said. 

     Earlier this year, Dr. Nagl found out that this was going to be her last year. 

     “I think it was after a board meeting—setting up board meetings is really hard and getting all the reports in and all that sort of stuff—it was after a board meeting that she said, ‘You know, this is becoming less fun. I think this is it.’ And so, when she decided it was time, it was time, right?” Dr. Nagl said.

     With Ms. Montgomery’s retirement, the school is losing thirty-five years of institutional memory. Building up the talent for the roles she played and her knowledge of administering the school is not something one can just pick up.

     Dr. Cox said, “Well, we’re losing a chunk of history, both all that she knew and things that she did that she probably didn’t even realize that she was doing. Somebody else is going to have to learn that from scratch. And, she had a really good perspective [from her 35 years that] covers a lot of things that have changed a lot in that time, and she would give good advice and she could know what worked and what didn’t work before we even tried it. It’s just going to be impossible to replace that because that’s one person’s institutional memory that’s so important and so comprehensive.”

     Another aspect that will be lost is Ms. Montgomery’s unique mixture of profound dedication to the school, care for the students, and a jubilant attitude.

“She is the soul of the headmaster’s office.”

Dr. JoHn Nagl

     “She is the soul of the headmaster’s office,” Dr. Nagl said. “It is hard to imagine that office without Candy Montgomery in it. She’s taken care of five of the school’s headmasters, and they loved her. All the living Headmasters were coming back to [what would have been] the farewell dinner. It will be hard to find somebody who has the same blend of love for the boys, and dedication to doing what’s right, and cheerfulness and positive attitude as Candy Montgomery has had at the school for so many years. She’s been absolutely delightful and we will not see her like again.”

    Arguably the most significant characteristic of Ms. Montgomery that we will not see in the coming years is her sense of fashion.

     “When I think about Candy Montgomery, she never wore the same outfit twice,” Dr. Nagl said. “Her closet must be enormous.”

     For Ms. Montgomery, her favorite moments each year are the opening ceremony and closing activities.

     “I love opening day, pulling everybody together and the gym and president of the student body welcoming everybody along with Dr. Nagl and just the excitement that’s there,” Ms. Montgomery said. “And, the end of the year is so much fun with the closings that are important in all three divisions. [The commencement this year] is a special time that was very personal for each family and each boy as they came onto the stage and Centennial Hall. So both the opening and closings.” 

     Over the past thirty-five years, she has created endless memories that bring her joy. However, one of her favorite moments happened when the school celebrated its 125th anniversary. 

     “One of my favorite pictures [is] where the whole school was wearing maroon and gold and it was the hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the school—so that was about twelve years ago. We were all down on the field and we, out of human beings made the “H.” I was holding my grandson that’s going into ninth grade now. I was holding him because he was in the childcare center right in the front row of that picture. That was a fun memory,” Ms. Montgomery said.  

     After her retirement, she plans to spend some time traveling and relaxing at home. 

     “I like to travel. We’ve done some Riverboat Cruises, and I have a couple more on the list,” she said.

Ms. Montgomery in an interview – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     With her time at home, Ms. Montgomery is excited to be able to greet the fox that visits her house each morning. 

     “We have beautiful woods in the backyard and a fox that runs by every morning. So I’ll be able to see him running by. At least in this nice weather. I’ll be out on the back porch eating breakfast, and he’ll come to say good morning,” Ms. Montgomery said. 

     She will also spend time with her grandchildren and family on the beach. 

     Dr. Cox said, “She has her grandchildren and so on and a larger family that has ties to the Jersey Shore and they spend a lot of time together as a family enjoying the Jersey Shore.”

     Nevertheless, she will miss coming to school each day and being constantly greeted. Still,  Ms. Montgomery plans to return to campus often because of her ties to the community. 

     “You know because I have so much connection, I feel that I will be back on campus often,” Ms. Montgomery said. “We go to many of the games and plays and with a grandson going into ninth grade they’re probably other activities that I will still be going to. I’ll miss the daily routine of seeing everyone, but I think I’ll be on campus enough that people finally say, ‘Didn’t you retire?’”

     Ms. Montgomery will not completely move away from planning events, however, as she has become the secretary of her home community. 

     Dr. Nagl said, “She moved to a new place two years ago and she became the social secretary in that community. She lives in it, so she sets up all the social events for them, and she loves that.”

     In the end, Ms. Montgomery wants to leave the school community with one thing.  

     “I hope that I leave a lasting memory of a smile.”

Author: Jeffrey Yang '22

Jeffrey Yang is an editor-in-chief of the Index, and has been a contributor to the newspaper since 2018. He also works on the school literary magazine, Pegasus, and the yearbook, Haligoluk, and participates in Reading Olympics, Model UN, and Cross Country.