- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

HENNING, Tenn. (AP) — Fred Montgomery, the childhood friend of “Roots” author Alex Haley and the first black mayor of this rural west Tennessee town, died July 12. He was 89.

Family members said Mr. Montgomery died at his home in Henning. His health had been steadily declining after kidney failure.

“He was a great man, who was an inspiration to many,” said Marvin Montgomery, one of Mr. Montgomery’s sons. “He will be missed.”

Mr. Montgomery often traveled with Mr. Haley while he was writing, including his work on the book “Roots,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a miniseries watched by millions in 1977.

Mr. Haley had planned to write a book about Mr. Montgomery’s life, but it was unfinished when he died in 1992.

Lucas L. Johnson II, a writer with the Associated Press in Nashville, became friends with Mr. Montgomery while writing a story about him. He later wrote a book about their friendship called “Finding the Good,” which was published in 2003.

“Alex Haley would often say, ‘Find the good and praise it,’” said Mr. Johnson, who visited Mr. Montgomery a few days before his death. “I found it in a jewel, an old wise man, tucked away in Henning.”

For many years, Mr. Montgomery served as curator and tour guide of the Alex Haley Museum in Henning, about 50 miles northeast of Memphis, but he stopped giving tours last year because of poor health.

Born in 1916, Mr. Montgomery grew up in a poor family that struggled to put food on the table, and as a child he helped sharecrop with his 12 brothers and sisters.

The owners of the land where he picked cotton set quotas that left little time for school, but when he had time, Mr. Montgomery went to school with Mr. Haley in a segregated one-room schoolhouse.

“It’s hard to describe just how deep our dreams were,” Mr. Montgomery said. “We all talked about what we were going to be when we grew up.”

When he was 18, Mr. Montgomery married his sweetheart, Ernestine. They had six sons and five daughters and were together until she died on New Year’s Day 2004.

He worked for the railroad, then became the first master plumber in Henning.

Mr. Haley moved away from Henning and joined the Coast Guard and later went on to write “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”

Mr. Haley would sometimes travel on freighters when he wrote. One time Mr. Montgomery went with him to Japan.

“He said he liked freighters because they had few people, were quiet, and he could get his work done,” Mr. Montgomery said.

At 66, Mr. Montgomery became curator of the Haley museum and was elected mayor when he was 71.

“I always felt like I would be somebody one day,” Mr. Montgomery said in a 1999 interview with the AP. “No matter how tough things got, I believed I could overcome.”

Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, called Mr. Montgomery a role model.

“I only wish our state and our nation had an army of ‘Fred Montgomerys’ with your commitment and spirit of community service,” Mr. Frist wrote to Mr. Montgomery after reading the AP article.

He is survived by three sons, three daughters, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandsons.

Thomas R. O’Neal, 66,FAA engineer

Thomas R. O’Neal, a retired engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration, died June 18 of complications from diabetes at his home in Lexington, Ky. He was 66.

Mr. O’Neal was born in Oakland City, Ind. He attended Purdue University and graduated from the University of Evansville with a degree in electrical engineering.

Mr. O’Neal worked in Indianapolis and Chicago before moving to Fairfax and working at the FAA’s D.C. headquarters. After 30 years with the agency, he retired in 2003 as supervisor of general engineering.

Mr. O’Neal is survived by his wife of 34 years, ElVeda O’Neal of Lexington; two daughters, Giselle A. Christmas of Owensville, Ind., and Marveda M. Rudd of Williamstown, Ky.; two sons, Stephen M. Greenwell of Owensville and Mark A. Greenwell of Lexington; his mother, Christena Gieselman O’Neal of Somerville, Ind.; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service for Mr. O’Neal will be held Sept. 16 in Somerville.

Memorial donations can be made to the American Kidney Fund, 6110 Executive Blvd., Suite 1010, Rockville, MD 20825.

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