Obituary: David Montgomery / Scholar had longtime passion for labor activism
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David Montgomery, a union organizer, political and civil rights activist and pre-eminent American labor historian who formerly chaired the history department at the University of Pittsburgh, died suddenly Friday.
Mr. Montgomery, of Kennett Square, Pa., was professor emeritus and Farnum professor of history at Yale University at the time of his death at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Philadelphia, due to a brain hemorrhage. He was 84.
He was a member of the Pitt history faculty from 1963 to 1979, chairing the department in 1973-76. A native of Bryn Mawr, Pa., he received the university's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1971.
Following military service and college, Mr. Montgomery worked as a self-taught machinist and was an active member of several local unions in the International Association of Machinists, Teamsters and United Electrical Workers Union. He was blacklisted from several machinist jobs for union organizing during the McCarthy era.
"If he hadn't been chased out of it, he'd probably have retired as a machinist," said his son, Claude Montgomery, of Stamford, Conn.
Instead, he returned to academia, getting his doctorate in history from the University of Minnesota in 1962. His doctoral thesis was the basis of the first of six books and more than 85 articles and book chapters he published, alone or with others. His best-known book, "Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925," was designated a 1989 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction.
After getting his advanced degree, he taught for a year at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., then headed to Pitt. While in Pittsburgh, he remained an active supporter of the city's unions, his son said. Mr. Montgomery moved on to Yale in 1979, where he also was active in labor politics.
He was a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies during the Vietnam War era.
Mr. Montgomery loved academia and labor activism equally, his son said, though the stresses of being department chair at Pitt "persuaded him he much preferred being a teacher than a manager of teachers."
Asked what his father loved about union activism, Claude Montgomery said, "He thought that workers make up the vast majority of this country's population and advocating for them was being for the people. He was a huge advocate for equality and advocating for and working with workers was part of that advocacy.
"He felt that studying the way workers and their movements operated in fact led to a greater understanding of what people should be doing today, both in work places and in their political lives."
As for teaching, "he loved imparting knowledge to people who wanted to receive it. ... He loved being around [students]. His graduate students in particular ended up being lifelong friends."
Shelton Stromquist, history professor at the University of Iowa and a graduate student of Mr. Montgomery's at Pitt in the 1970s, praised his mentor's "supreme integrity and deepest of commitments to building a truly just and equitable society. ...
"As his students, we could not imagine a more dedicated and inspiring mentor," Mr. Stromquist added in an email. "However critical he might be, he was gracious, thoughtful, while at the same time challenging. We try to model, however imperfectly, his mentoring with our own students, and they in turn with theirs. This may be his greatest and most lasting legacy as a teacher."
Though he was already retired when she arrived to teach at Yale, labor history professor Jennifer Klein knew Mr. Montgomery as one of the editors of a journal he founded, International Labor and Working Class History. Mr. Montgomery was on the editorial board of the globally circulated journal at the time of his death.
She noted that he was always out in support of workers both at Yale and in the New Haven, Conn., community where it is housed.
"David Montgomery was the model of the scholar-activist but also the activist-scholar," Ms. Klein said.
"He truly acted on what he wrote about and what he researched. He valued the dignity of all forms of labor and all workers, wherever they were, and he participated in their struggles for justice."
Claude Montgomery said he didn't know what first got his father interested in the labor movement. "I don't know if anybody knows what the trigger moment was, except maybe his wife."
Similarly, the younger Mr. Montgomery could only guess why his father took a job as a machinist out of college. "I think that's where he could earn a good living and be engaged in those kind of [labor] activities," Claude Montgomery said. "He actually worked as a farm hand as a teenager and a scholar athlete at Haverford School, so being around and part of the working community was something he fell into naturally."
Besides his son, Mr. Montgomery is survived by his wife, Martel; another son, Edward of Fulton, Md.; five grandchildren; a brother, Daniel of Kerrville, Texas; and a sister, Virginia Bailey of West Grove, Chester County.
A viewing will be held Friday at Kuzo & Grieco Funeral Home, Kennett Square. Funeral services will be Saturday at Quaker Crosslands retirement community, also in Kennett Square. Burial will be private.
First Published December 5, 2011 12:00 am