Newsman remembered for time he came to the rescue

Published 6:07 pm Tuesday, November 10, 2020

One of the most talented journalists I’ve been privileged to know died last week. That alone would warrant some ink in a Short Rows, but Dennis Montgomery earned a very special place in my memory, and my heart, because of his contribution to this newspaper.

First, a word about Dennis’ career. He earned a degree from the University of Memphis in 1968, the same year I finished journalism study at Virginia Commonwealth University. There, the comparison ends. While I returned home to be a country newspaper editor, he became a respected wire service reporter.

Dennis went to work for The Associated Press soon after college and his reporting career quickly soared. It took him from the Missouri Ozarks to Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Illinois and North Carolina. He served a stint as a National Endowment for the Humanities Professional Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. Eventually, he ended up in Richmond, where he was The Associated Press’ bureau chief. It was there I met him in the 1980s.

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Anne and I had bought The Smithfield Times in 1986 and I met Dennis while I was working as chairman of the Virginia Press Association’s Freedom of Information Committee, lobbying legislators to improve FOIA. A couple of years later, Dennis left wire service journalism and moved to his wife’s home in Claremont, where he began doing historic research on the Starving Times at Jamestown. He wrote one of the first forthright accounts of the misery and cannibalism that occurred there.

We had talked a couple of times, but I hadn’t seen Dennis since he left the AP earlier that year. That changed in late August 1989.

I was at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon that month finishing the layout for that week’s paper when a severe abdominal pain hit me. It landed me in Riverside before the day was out, but it took two weeks for doctors there to determine it was an aneurism and was blocking blood to a significant portion of my intestines.

A few days into the Riverside stay, Anne brought me Dennis’ phone number and I called. I told him I was in trouble and needed help.

Dennis climbed on his motorcycle, drove to Smithfield and went to the office, where he told the staff that he would be editing the paper for a while. He said he would meet with them when he got back from the hospital. He then drove to Newport News and asked if I had instructions. By then, I didn’t have sense enough to give advice or instruction.

Dennis went back to Smithfield and dove into editing the newspaper, which he did for the next three months.

While Dennis ran the news operation, veteran Times staffers Lona Ellis and Lorain Cosgrave kept circulation and advertising going. Anne, meanwhile, was trying to oversee the business side while keeping three children on track and spending part of every day sitting in ICU and surgical waiting rooms.

Four surgeries — two of them at Norfolk General — and two months of hospitalization later, I returned home. I had lost 50 pounds and was mentally unable to focus on much of anything.

Dennis told me to take my time. He kept working for the next month while I began exercising — and eating.

Finally, I walked into the office one day and sat down across the desk from him. He asked how I was doing, and I said I was slowly getting better.

He looked at me and said, “What you need is to go back to work.”

He stood up, gathered his few personal items, put them in a backpack and walked out without another word. He was right. It was the best prescription that could have been written at that point. Dennis didn’t cut anyone any slack, including me.

Dennis was a meticulous writer and editor. During those three months, he drove reporters to excel at everything they covered. He demanded perfection, and when I returned to the paper, I had a better staff than when I had left.

He began writing a column, which was priceless. Titled “Publick Occurences” (the spelling a salute to Colonial times), and its pithy observations continued to run in the paper long after he had left.

Dennis and I stayed in touch off and on after that, and I was particularly interested in his historic research, which he doggedly pursued. He went on to become editor and a highly respected contributor to the journal Colonial Williamsburg. After he left that job, I lost track of him and frankly heard nothing more until a reader alerted me last week that his obituary had appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

So, here’s to Dennis Montgomery, journalist, scholar and — for a brief time — the person who kept this newspaper going.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is