- Meggen Burghardt
Colorado Springs residents John and Thelma Montgomery celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last week. He's 84, she's 90, and they've had a colorful six decades together. In WWII, John was an aide to Eisenhower at the Allied Headquarters in England, France and Germany. After the war, his renown had grown to the point where he remained in Europe another 15 years as aide to whoever was top brass there. In 1960, he was moved at Eisenhower's behest to Fort Carson so that he could organize the security, dining arrangements and social events of the ex-President whenever he visited Denver, the girlhood home of his wife, Mamie.
John attended Rust College, one of the few places of higher education available for blacks in Mississippi during segregation. Thelma attended Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, Tooklue College in Jackson, Mississippi, and the University of Chicago. John retired from the Army in 1972 and operated the wastewater plant in Colorado Springs until 1987. He was an unsuccessful candidate for city council in the late '70s. Though 90 years old, Thelma bowls in a league every Monday (twice a week in the winter), and rolled a 200 this season. A Master bridge player, she plays every Wednesday and Sunday with "a group of Broadmoor ladies." John cooks and serves them lunch each week. John has survived five heart attacks and seven strokes in recent years, and he and Thelma live separately in houses with adjoining backyards. A retiring, private woman, Thelma shied away from being interviewed, but John talked at amiable length.
"I'm 84 years old, and I've never used alcohol or tobacco," he proudly noted. "I don't even know what whiskey or beer taste like."
How is it that you became aide to Eisenhower? I washed pots and pans in a restaurant on Saturdays when I was 15, and the chef taught me to cook. I got drafted after college and the Army put me in a medic unit. But when the generals found out I was the best gourmet cook in the entire U.S. Army, they all wanted me for their own houses. One thing led to another, and I got assigned to Eisenhower in 1942. Basically, I ran his life. I took care of his clothes, his uniform, his cars and his transportation. I bought and supervised his food. I bartended for his social functions. Anywhere he was, I was, too.
How did you and Thelma meet? I grew up in St. Louis and moved to Starkville, Mississippi when I was 17. That's where Mississippi State University is. My daddy had a general store, sold sweet potatoes, and bought and sold scrap iron. Her daddy started the first black bank in Mississippi and he was the richest man in Starkville. George Washington Carver stayed at their house whenever he came to the college to speak or do research. I had the nicest car and I was the best dressed guy in town, and Thelma, who owned two beauty shops, was the best female dresser. Both of us were trying to be the best people we could be, and that's what put us together. We'd drive to dances whenever the big-name bands would visit Memphis, 150 miles away.
Being married for 60 years is a pretty amazing feat. What's your secret? You've got to learn how to get along with these women, and I figured out how to do it. Allow your wife to be independent. My wife has her own bank account and car. She makes up her own mind. I respect her views and never criticize what she's doing, because that irritates her. The less you irritate your wife, the better you get along with her, you see?