Shiny patchwork letters on the handmade quilt draped across Brian Montgomery's battered old sofa trumpet his title: mayor.
Framed correspondence, warmly penned by various governors and Henrico County officials, add to the impression that Montgomery is a man of consequence. The frames rattle against the walls, vibrating in time to the growling rumble of heavy Virginia Department of Transportation machinery along nearby Brook Road.
The $2 million roadway-improvement project outside Montgomery's home, which started in May, is taking place in large part because of his single-minded determination and willingness to speak up for people like him with disabilities. The project is expected to be finished in the fall of 2012.
Born with cerebral palsy, Montgomery has lived for the past 20 of his 39 years in the Hollybrook Apartments, an independent-living facility at St. Joseph's Villa. He zips purposefully along the paved paths of the Villa's faux-Spanish mission campus in his motorized mobility scooter, making frequent dashes across busy Brook Road to the shopping mecca anchored by Wal-Mart and Big Lots.
It was on one of these almost daily trips that Montgomery was first struck by his interest in politics and public policy — and by the fast-traveling fender of a passing car.
"I got hit in 1991," says Montgomery. "I was going across to Wal-Mart for a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs. Somebody was playing with their radio and talking to somebody in the car and … they just hit me."
Montgomery was thrown 35 feet from his wheelchair, a bruised and bloodied mess but still alive. His wheelchair wasn't so lucky. "It was torn up," he says. "It was probably in anywhere from five to 10 different pieces … it was underneath the car. The EMS workers in the back of the ambulance told me they were amazed I'd made it."
Ever since the accident, Montgomery's old-time Henrico drawl and tinted wire-rimmed glasses have become quite familiar to county and state transportation officials, as he has taken on the cause of safety improvements to Brook Road, where one of his Hollybrook neighbors, William Rice, died in a pedestrian crash in 1993.
"The thing about it is, he has a deep interest in what's going on out there," says Bob Pinkerton, Henrico's deputy county manager. "He really ... doesn't hesitate to step up. He's a good advocate."
Actually, Montgomery is a remarkable advocate. He managed to shepherd a project that will create major improvements to infrastructure and beautification along the languishing Brook Road corridor — despite a decade of budget crises and the usual bureaucratic firewalls between state and local agencies.
But his childhood in a working-class neighborhood in the West End gave him training for such challenges.
"He was like my shadow," says Brian's dad, Louis Montgomery, who recently retired from his own janitorial company. He spent Brian's formative years stretching to make ends meet as a bouncer and bartender at the Attache, a legendary Henrico bar, after-hours club and boxing gym owned by Piggy Hudgens. Brian was always along for the ride.
"Brian grew up in that atmosphere — police officers and retired police officers," his dad says. "We used to box and work out down there. Piggy loved Brian. To let Brian know he was part of the crowd, Piggy would strap him to an iron girder and pop him with left hooks. Brian would laugh and laugh."
Being among equals made a big impression on Brian. "You got to know a lot of people, I'll tell you that," he says. "All walks of life."
And he learned from his dad not to take any guff from retired boxers or anyone else. His father fought and conquered Henrico County Public Schools, suing to have his son attend J.R. Tucker High School, rather than a special school for students with disabilities.
Rising to challenges is part of Montgomery's DNA, says Sandra Glass, a longtime Henrico activist who first met Montgomery a decade ago when she and other residents took up the Hollybrook residents' cause as a way to promote improvements along Brook Road.
"I admire him because he's honest, and he knows what he believes in," says Glass, who good-naturedly suffers being called "Old Bat," the nickname Montgomery gave her as a cost of friendship.
"I don't know many people who have the will or the desire to work that hard and follow through on something they believe in — especially when it's not just for their good but for the good of all," says Glass, whose involvement in the cause decreased over the years. "He really has spearheaded that and has done most all of that work himself."
Kathleen Barrett, chief executive officer at St. Joseph's Villa, says her tenacious wheel-bound tenant has kept her on her toes.
"Brian started long before I got here," says Barrett, who took over her post about five years ago and quickly learned that her schedule would require a daily chat with Montgomery. "I've always said he's like a dog with a bone."
In this case, the bone was a donation of the Villa's frontage along Brook Road, allowing VDOT to widen the thoroughfare. Such a donation required opening the Villa's trust and changing its legal covenants, not an easy task.
But one of the county's most successful politicians, Brookland District Supervisor Dick Glover, says he's never had much luck achieving inter-agency cooperation the way Montgomery has.
"I've never been able to do it," he says. "VDOT and the county public works have a reputation for working together really well, but you've got to determine what ‘well' means."
Montgomery's father says he's not surprised that his son has accomplished so much despite the odds and his personal challenges.
"Brian, he's his own man, that's about the best way I can put it," Lewis Montgomery says, predicting Brook Road is far from the last project his son will see to completion. "I'm not going to say he's overcome cerebral palsy, but he's certainly gone beyond what most people do with that disease. He just doesn't take no for an answer. I wouldn't be surprised [at] him maybe even in the future running for public office. Just because you have something like cerebral palsy doesn't limit you from serving the public."
Nonetheless, Montgomery doesn't consider his efforts extraordinary, just tasks that anyone should do for their neighbors. And heck, maybe they're a little easier since he's sitting down all the time.
"I'm just an everyday person that knows something needed to be done," he says, swift to share credit with others. "One person can't get this sort of thing done. You get laughed out of doors in a heartbeat."