Honoring a trailblazer

When Leonora Montgomery earned her doctorate in religious studies from Rice University in 1984, the one thing that may have seemed unusual was her age, 62. Little did she know at the time that she was a trailblazer in her own right. The Indiana-born mother of four had become the first woman to graduate from the Religious Studies Department’s Ph.D. program.

The department honored Montgomery May 2 at its first recognition dinner with an Alumnae/Alumni Flame award. The honor coincides with the School of Humanities Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality’s “The Women of Rice: Our Legacy and Labor” project, a campuswide initiative launched this year to document and archive the contributions women have made and continue to make at Rice.

Leonora Montgomery discusses her experiences as the first woman to graduate from Rice's religious studies Ph.D. program during an interview at the university's Cohen House May 5. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“I look at what she (Montgomery) has done as a woman in our world, and I am truly inspired,” said April DeConick, the Isla Carroll Turner and Percy Turner Professor of Religious Studies and department chair.

For Montgomery, a key source of her inspiration has been education. “In my family, education is the coin of the realm,” Montgomery said during an interview at Rice’s Cohen House, where two of her four children had their wedding receptions. Her father, Oswald Ryan, earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard University and attended Harvard Law School. Montgomery herself received an undergraduate degree from Wellesley College. While at Wellesley, she met her future husband, Jeff, then a student at Harvard’s business school. They married during World War II and, after the war ended, started a family in Jeff’s home state, Texas.

When Montgomery enrolled at Rice in 1974 at age 51, her road to the university had been paved with a commitment to her children and social service causes. Her husband’s career in the oil and gas industry had taken the family across Texas — from Midland to Fort Worth, then Dallas and finally Houston.

“My career was parenting,” Montgomery said of her first years in Texas. “I thought I was a pioneer woman. I had never been west of the Mississippi. I thought it was exciting.”

In Houston, Montgomery became involved in social service causes and served on various boards, including as president of the Daycare Association and chair of the Drug Abuse Council. During Houston schools’ racial integration in the 1960 and ’70s, Montgomery became active as a staunch “white ally,” helping to elect liberal members to the Houston Independent School District board. “It was easy to be influential as a volunteer in Houston if you did your homework, if you read the reports and the materials you should read.”

At the same time, Montgomery pursued her intellectual curiosity through involvement in a “great books” discussion group she and her husband led and taking continuing education courses at the Women’s Institute of Houston. At the institute, she became acquainted with Rice through a course taught by Rice Philosophy Professor Radoslav Tsanoff, who would become influential in her decision to eventually attend Rice. “I took every course Dr. Tsanoff taught,” Montgomery said.

She said the impetus for enrolling at Rice was based on an urge to understand the source of the social problems she was witnessing while engaged in the Houston community. “I was where I needed to be,” she said. “I was studying because I was looking for answers to questions, not because I had a professional goal.” She studied under Niels Nielsen, the founding chairman of the Religious Studies Department and professors Werner Kelber and James Sellers, her adviser.

Her doctoral thesis would become influenced by two pivotal developments in her personal life at that time: Her husband suffered a heart attack that would affect his health for the next 10 years, and she began caring for her father, who suffered from memory loss. Both her husband and father died just days apart from one another in December 1982.

The title of Montgomery’s dissertation was “Homecoming: The Ethical Imperatives Which Emerge From a Theological Perspective on Disintegration at the End of Life.” At the time, literature on the ethical dimensions of old age was slim, she said. Today, the topic of the ethics of old age could not be of bigger importance to society.

“What if God is saying, ‘I’ve given you a whole lifetime to learn the skills that you’re going to need. Now we’re ready for the big challenge’?” Montgomery said. “The big challenge is, What can you do under conditions of limitation? There are always powers left that remain and with those powers, it depends on what you do.”

Montgomery said social change can happen through a new awareness of old age. “If you began to deal with people knowing the very end of their lives is the ‘big deal’ — that’s when you either make or break the worth of your whole life — think of how things would shift,” she said. “You would do everything you could to see that that person had everything going for them that they possibly could, and you would know you were going to be there someday. So how are you going to live your life now?”

A year after earning her doctorate, Montgomery was ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister. She served five English-speaking churches in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Wiesbaden and Heidelberg, Germany. In Houston, she served three local churches. She retired from the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in 1996.

Montgomery has served on the board of Meadville Lombard Theological School, the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Commission and the Wellesley College Unitarian Universalist Chaplaincy Advisory Board. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombard in 2012 for her dedication and service to the Unitarian Universalist faith.

For Montgomery’s honorary doctorate, Meadville Lombard’s citation letter read, “As an agent of change, Rev. Montgomery focused her keen insights on the social and civic problems of the day. What is remarkable, however, was that she was not content to simply notice that our social world was dysfunctional, but chose to do something to correct the problem.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.