The Republican doctor (you may not know about) who changed Asheville politics

[Asheville Citizen-Times] The Republican doctor (you may not know about) who changed Asheville politics

The Republican doctor (you may not know about) who changed Asheville politics

ASHEVILLE - On Jan. 6, Dr. Wayne Swope Montgomery died at the age of 97 at a retirement home in North Asheville.

In the years proceeding his death, Montgomery was known by many for his love of tennis ― which he played until he was 88 ― his daily swimming regimen and a calm and kind demeanor.

But nearer the end of his life, what many did not know about the Midwestern-born doctor who helped found the area's long-running orthopedic practice, Blue Ridge Bone and Joint, was Montgomery's historic role in Asheville politics: the city's first Republican mayor since the Civil War, Montgomery served in government and politics during a period of great local and national change, including racial integration of schools.

"We even had a threat somebody was going to bomb our house," Wayne Montgomery Jr., who goes by his middle name Swope, told the Citizen Times Jan. 9, shortly after his father's death. "They were turbulent times."

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In contrast to the polarization and combativeness that mark modern politics, Montgomery was remembered for civility and ability by prominent Democrat Tom Sobol, who served with him on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners after Montgomery's time as mayor.

"We got along very, very well," said Sobol, 80 "I have a tremendous amount of respect for him."

Swope was preceded in death by his wife, Elizabeth Campbell Jeschke Montgomery, a prominent swimming coach, his daughter Mary, a world-class swimmer who competed in the 1972 Olympics, and his granddaughter, Page Whetsell.

He is survived by sons, Wayne (Candace Fouts) and Woodard Page Montgomery (Joyce), and daughters, Ann Montgomery Sims (Wilson) and Jane Montgomery Whetsell (Paul), and 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, according to his obituary in the Citizen Times.

Montgomery was born in 1925 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and later lived in Madison, Indiana, where he went to public schools. Athletic from a young age, he was offered a minor league baseball contract by Boston Red Sox Farm Supervisor Herb Pennock. Instead he graduated from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, which he attended on an academic scholarship and where he met his wife, known as Betsy.

In the World War II and the Korean War, he was a lieutenant and naval physician, serving in Tennessee, North Carolina and multiple locations in Japan.

Montgomery graduated from Detroit's Wayne University Medical School in 1950 and after an internship and fellowship at Campbell Clinic in Memphis, Tennessee, accepted an offer in 1955 to join the Asheville practice of Dr. Walter Watt that would become Blue Ridge Bone and Joint where he saw patients until 1993.

"If you ever went with Dad anywhere someone would come up and say, 'Hey, Doc, do you remember you fixed my elbow or my knee?" said daughter Jane Whetsell, who lives in Woodfin.

Daughter Ann Simms, who also lives in Woodfin, talked about her father's consideration to hospital staff, remembering how a volunteer "candy striper" told him of her interest in becoming a doctor. "He said to her, 'why don't you come up and watch what I'm doing?'"

Sports remained important to him and Montgomery coached and headed little league baseball and was an orthopedist for the Atlanta Falcons 1965 summer camp in Asheville.

With politics, Montgomery was struck by the dominance of Democrats in his adopted city and the lack of viable Republican candidates, son Swope Montgomery said.

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"His feeling was that he wanted to see a healthy two-party system. So he started encouraging people to run for City Council or county commissioner and began helping them raise money for campaigns," he said.

He became chair of the Buncombe GOP in 1965, serving until 1969 when he won what was then a partisan city election and became mayor. The majority of council members then were Republicans as the region and country went through the tumult of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Following Asheville High's integration in 1969 Black students protested lack of opportunities and limits on their ability to participate in activities. A protest devolved into a police confrontation with riot batons and broken windows. Montgomery declared a citywide curfew and state of emergency.

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After city government, Montgomery served on the Board of Commissioners from 1984 to 1988.

After politics, he continued his tennis and daily swims as well as remarkably extensive involvement in civic groups, serving on the boards of the N.C. Department of Transportation, the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, the county health department, the Black Mountain Home for Children and others.

"Probably one of the greatest attributes of his leadership style was his ability to not be defined by political labels, but to work for what was best for the community," said current GOP chair Glenda Weinert.

More:Read Montgomery's full obituary

A celebration of life ceremony for Montgomery will be held 10 a.m. April 22 at Groce Funeral Home at 72 Long Shoals Road.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for contributions Black Mountain Home for Children, 80 Lake Eden Road, Black Mountain, NC 28711, or to Brooks Howell Home, 266 Merrimon Ave., Asheville, NC 28801. A guest register book is available online at www.grocefuneralhome.com.

Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government, and other news. He's written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Got a tip? Contact Burgess at jburgess@citizentimes.com, 828-713-1095, or on Twitter @AVLreporter. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.