In a stack of photos spanning the seven decades of her life, one, in particular, stands out: a black-and-white snapshot from the 1970s, with a young Kay Montgomery high above the earth, suspended from a parachute after leaping from a plane.
Though afraid of heights and “scared as hell,” Kay—as she is known throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association—says she had wanted to try skydiving for years. But her husband—understandably, she concedes—objected to such radical risk-taking; they had two young sons. Once divorced, however, she seized the opportunity.
The training took all day, with practice jumps from increasingly high platforms on the ground, until students were loaded into the plane. “The woman who jumped out before me had internalized everything we’d been told because she was a dancer, and she went out with perfect form and floated all the way down,” Kay recalls. “I hadn’t been scared all day, but once I was in the plane and realized ‘The only way I’m going to get out of here is to jump,’ I was terrified. Then I saw her do it with such elegance that sheer competitiveness kicked in.”
She forced herself onto the strut of the plane. “Once you’re out, you can’t get back in. You have to let go. It really, really scared me.” And then: “The descent was gorgeous. It was like being in a dream.”
She never did it again. She didn’t need to.
There have been only four executive vice presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association since it formed in 1961, in large part because Kay Montgomery has served for so long: twenty-eight years, through the tenures of four very different presidents with very different styles and priorities, during times of high conflict and profound cultural changes within and beyond the denomination, through scores of public statements and General Assemblies and re-imaginings of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.
Upon it all, she’s left her unique mark. And so it is fitting that, as Kay gets ready to retire in June, the association is also preparing to leave its headquarters in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood for a renovated building on the waterfront (see page 30). The consequences of these two massive changes cannot yet be known. But thinking of the UUA without Kay is so unsettling that President Peter Morales commissioned a study to determine whether to restructure the organization after her retirement. “Kay’s departure,” he says, “marks the end of an era.”
(On April 11, as this issue went to press, Morales named the Rev. Harlan Limpert chief operating officer effective July 1 instead of naming a new executive vice president. See uuworld.org/news for details, 4.15.13.)
“Losing Kay and her wisdom and memory is way more upsetting than losing Beacon Street,” says the Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship and former director of the UUA’s Washington office. “For so many of us, Kay is the heart and nervous system of the UUA.”
As the first woman and first layperson to become executive vice president, Kay has served as chief operating officer, directing all daily operations, including personnel management, budgets, fundraising, information technology, and communications. For most of her tenure, she also oversaw the UUA’s congregational outreach and programming. But her administrative role obscures another, equally important one. As trusted advisor to the president, she has influenced critical decisions on matters large and small, including guiding the association itself into greater diversity and much stronger stands on racial, gender, and LGBT equality.
“I think it’s really significant that in the day-to-day operations of the UUA, it’s been a woman at the helm for thirty years,” says Hillary Goodridge, director of the UU Funding Program, who has worked with Kay from the beginning.
Though a deeply thoughtful visionary, Kay has been happiest in the number two spot, content to make others look good, perhaps too ready to deflect credit for accomplishments largely hers. And the deputy role means she can leave outspoken activism to others and achieve what means so much to her: being well-liked, indeed beloved, as she builds collaborations and relationships across the UUA. “It is my strength and my flaw that I am evenhanded about virtually everything,” she says, sitting in her office with its spectacular Boston view on an afternoon in late March. “I think my role was to push toward change that alienated as few people as possible.”
Kay crafted a niche that became invaluable to the leaders she served. “I relied heavily on her,” says the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, who ran against a woman for president in 1985. He won, in part, because he promised to name Kay as the first woman executive vice president. “She had the most keenly developed intuition and ability to read people and political situations, to know when it was a good time to advance a situation and when it was not.”
“Kay’s role could not have been more important in my presidency,” says the Rev. William G. Sinkford, elected in 2001 as the UUA’s first African-American president. Sinkford had taken a senior staff position at the UUA with the encouragement of Kay, who understood the importance of having people of color in the organization’s leadership. “She was a constant, not only in supporting my leadership but encouraging me to step out and speak the truth as I saw it,” including on his controversial decision in 2003 to call for a UU “language of reverence.”
Kay has mentored scores of employees at UUA headquarters, as well as ministers and volunteers from around the country, and served as a talent scout for the next generation of denominational leaders. In that way, she’s become perhaps the most influential person in the association, shaping its direction and tone through the people it attracted to leadership. “She’s had such an impact on so many of us,” says Riley, who interviewed in 1989 to be UUA youth director, convinced she had no chance because “I went there to tell them how screwed up they were about youth.” Kay was delighted with Riley’s frankness; Riley planned to turn down an offer, but “Kay really seduced me by being so human,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to learn from that woman.’”
As each new president took office, some supporters would advise him to bring in fresh blood, notes Larry Ladd, former UUA financial advisor and current chair of the Nominating Committee. But each quickly came to recognize that if he were to be successful, he needed Kay in Boston, getting things done. “As her role was appreciated more and more by successive presidents,” says Ladd, “the role became increasingly important.”
“I always felt Kay was the Wendy to the UUA’s Never Never Land,” says Goodridge. “I always had this image that she was the one who held everything together, who knew what should happen and could make it happen, and who could bring comfort and direction and discipline when things ran amok.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and the extent of its impact on poor people of color became clear, Sinkford drafted a pastoral letter that began, “I am so angry!” He worried that it might be too harsh, and turned for advice to Kay. “Her only comment was, ‘Don’t change a single word,’” Sinkford recalls. “Empowerment is something Kay does almost intuitively—empowerment of others, at all levels.”
Kay has a natural charisma born of her deep understanding of the human condition. A gifted speaker and avid reader, able to quote poetry that fits almost any situation, “she may be the single best-read person I know,” says Denny Davidoff, UUA moderator from 1993 to 2001. Elegant and earthy, quick to leaven a tense situation with her ready wit, Kay is “an acute intellect without an ounce of pretension, and that’s rare,” says the Rev. John A. Buehrens, president from 1993 to 2001.
She is widely described as the UUA’s institutional memory, a role that Kay herself describes as “overrated,” and which Ladd calls a double-edged sword. “It is important to know the institutional history, but you should not be ruled by it,” he says, adding, with a chuckle, “I never saw her being constrained by the history, that’s for sure.”
“On more than one occasion, Kay and I became co-conspirators in changing the institution,” Sinkford says. For example, they decided one afternoon, on their own, to replace the framed oil paintings of “dead white guys” lining the staircase at 25 Beacon Street with photographs of diverse members—old, young, black, white, straight, gay—from an ad campaign, to showcase the new face of the UUA. They got few complaints. “Because she is a respected leader of the staff, very few people will question her,” Sinkford says.
Her cell phone ringtone is George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” and she carries a strong anti-authoritarian streak that emerges in funny ways, like refusing to give up cigarettes. “It’s a ‘Fuck that,’” she says. “One of the ways I’ve managed to be as forgiving as I am, and all those nice things, is this little dark side in me that goes around saying, ‘Fuck that.’”
“You gotta love her for that!” says Goodridge, lead plaintiff in the historic Massachusetts gay marriage case, who, when she learned the state high court had upheld the right to marry, called Kay before her own parents or other friends. “If she didn’t have that side to her where she swears like a sailor, if she didn’t smoke, I’d think, ‘She is too good to be true.’ It makes me trust that what comes out of her is authentic.”
“She’s interested in everyone and everything, including things that are hard and ugly,” says Riley. “She genuinely is epicurean. She wants the whole banquet table. And she is, by this age, pretty fearless about any of it.”
Two days after President John F. Kennedy was killed, 20-year-old Kay was desperately seeking solace, and decided to attend Catholic Mass for the first time since moving to Atlanta months earlier with her new husband. “I got there and realized I didn’t want to go in,” she recalls. “There was nothing for me in that church. I turned around and came home and never went back.”
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in working-class Detroit in the 1940s and ’50s, Kathleen Callahan—the youngest of four kids—attended a parochial school run by Dominican nuns. “I got a way better education than I would have at public school, and my personal experience was very benign and very progressive. We were taught evolution as though it was no big deal.” Still, from a very young age, she was deeply disconcerted by the dogma, such as the idea that Buddhists, among others, were damned for eternity. But, “I didn’t really let myself know it until I was away from Detroit—and then I let myself know it very quickly.”
Catholicism behind her, she yearned for a new spiritual home, and turned to books for answers. “Reading, for me, was about learning how the world works, learning there are options,” she says. “Whenever I hit a bad patch in my life, I’d take hold of whatever it was about and read all I could.” She came from a family of readers, though her parents didn’t graduate high school. “The deal in my family was, the last person to go to bed each night was supposed to go around the house and turn off all the lights, and take everybody’s glasses off.”
What she read about Unitarian Universalism called to her, and she learned that the local church, led by the Rev. Eugene Pickett, was a center of civil rights activism. “It was just fascinating—a very liberal and progressive church in Atlanta,” says Kay, for whom racial justice was a core value instilled by her parents. For their era, she notes, they were “not only without prejudice but strongly in favor of equality.” When she was a girl, her mother took her on “field trips” throughout Detroit, “to put me in situations where there was more diversity.”
Indeed, her mother—taught as a young bride that Italians were inferior—never forgave herself for her decision to shun an Italian family that moved next door. “It was one of the great regrets of her life,” Kay recalls. “She was simply one of the nicest people I’ve ever known, as was my dad.” Her father left school at 13 to work in the mines in Ohio, ran away from home at 16, traveled the country hopping trains, ran a floating craps game for a while, and wound up in Detroit working in a factory. “They were both deeply caring, nice people—not flawless,” she says.
Her mother’s mother, abandoned by her own husband with two young girls to raise, became a successful milliner, then lost everything in the Depression. “Both my parents loved her more than anyone,” says Kay, who never met her grandmother. “I think that strain of strong women permeated my mother and every woman in the family after that.”
It was a strain others recognized in her, even if she herself did not. After a few years at the church in Atlanta, some church elders asked Kay to administer the religious education program, which offered classes for hundreds of people each week. What did they see in the young stay-at-home mother? At the time, she had no relevant experience, no college degree, and was “kind of lost,” she recalls. “It seemed way past my capacity,” she recalls. “I wasn’t afraid, but I was kind of bullied into it.”
In that first critical recognition of her talents, Kay began to find herself. Like so many women redefining their roles in the early 1970s, Kay proceeded without any role models. But she blossomed, and was asked to become administrator of the church, which by then was the largest UU congregation in the country. Divorced, she was working full-time while raising her sons Matt and Toby, taking college courses, running, and dating.
In 1983, Pickett, who had become UUA president in 1979, asked her to move to Boston to join the UUA’s fundraising department. “I think what people liked about her and do like about her is her understanding and inclusiveness in making people feel they have been heard,” Pickett says. “She could pull a group together very effectively, and work with a variety of people with different views and interests.”
It was another crossroads, a chance for greater personal liberation and professional advancement. She had grown bored with her job, and was “feeling stuck,” she recalls. But she would be leaving her teenaged sons with their father, 900 miles behind. “It was very, very hard for all of us. I knew it would be very hard—and I knew it was in my best interest to do it,” she says. “So I kind of held my breath and made a decision.” She rented a studio apartment on Beacon Hill, “a fantasy apartment” that she filled with books. “I was scared, but I had way more self-confidence by then, so mostly it felt like fun.”
And so began her tenure at the UUA, which would define not only her but the association as well. In 1984, her older son joined her in Boston; the year after that, Schulz, then executive vice president, ran for president. When he won, he followed through on his promise to appoint Kay to his former position, but she made it clear she had no intention of being his clone.
“I love Bill but I did not have Bill Schulz in me,” she says. “Bill is a very, very strong personality, extremely gifted, and an activist down to this toes, and I am a facilitator, a mediator, and a problem solver.” They worked it out, she says, “in a rather verbal and sometimes combative sort of way. Let’s say it involved a lot of my learning how to hold my own, and him learning to make peace with the fact I was not him.” But the hardest part of the transition for her was internal. “Because I’d been doing consulting for two years, I was very well-thought-of, trusted, respected. I was good at it. So I went from being everyone’s favorite person to being ‘The Man.’ That was hard for me,” she says. “I was extremely fond of being everyone’s favorite person.”
She brought to the UUA a management style grounded in feminist values and anti-oppression work, says Buehrens, and her stewardship of the association staff was marked by an increasing emphasis on diversity. She grew further, taking classes in human resources and accounting, and reading volumes about management. She became an extremely effective manager because she cultivated people’s strengths rather than trying to manage their weaknesses, says Riley. For over twenty-five years, Kay oversaw all aspects of the UUA, with ten to twelve senior staff reporting directly to her.
Despite weathering many nasty conflicts within the association, and often seeing the worst of people up close, she hasn’t lost her faith in Unitarian Universalism. “It’s not that I’m oblivious to the underbelly or the weediness,” she says. But, “I’ve had to forgive myself for so many things that it’s very hard to hold too much against other people.”
“I’m not sure she’d describe herself this way, but I think at heart she’s a person of great faith,” says Sinkford. “She realizes that we don’t have any control over outcomes, and so our faith is embodied in continuing to offer the best we can, the greatest wisdom and best energy, and trust that out of that will come what needs to come. It’s a very practical kind of faith.”
When the Rev. Peter Morales was elected UUA President in 2009, he decided the focus on the programmatic areas needed to be “more intense,” and created the office of the Vice President for Ministries and Congregational Support, with the Rev. Harlan Limpert in that role. Kay remained head of the administrative functions. She took the change like a professional. But, she says, “It hurt my feelings like crazy.” She chose not to resign. “I just wanted to prove it was a mistake,” she says. Sheer competitiveness kicked in. “Watch me. Watch me,” she thought.
Now, finally, Kay finds it is time to retire. She is a devoted grandmother, with five grandchildren and another on the way, close to her sons and their wives, eager to spend more time with them. It’s time.
She has been a loyal steward of Unitarian Universalism and the UUA, guiding it to become its best self. “I think it’s the best show in town, as opposed to perfect or ideal,” she says. “To the degree I want a religious home, it’s the only one that would work for me. And I want it to work and want it to work for other people.”
“Do you know the Philip Larkin poem about churchgoing? In the poem, he’s bicycling through Ireland and stops at a church that’s gone to rack and ruin, and then he says, ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here,’ and says that this ground ‘was proper to grow wise in.’ Don’t you love that? That’s a way of saying that to the degree I cycle back to UUism and this faith I’ve cast my lot with, do I like it every day? Not really, but I’ve cast my lot with it, and, at its best, it provides opportunities for people to grow wise in.”
Women now make up more than half of all UU ministers. The UUA has championed the rights of the LGBT community, committed itself to racial equality and antiracism, and embraced an inclusive attitude toward spirituality—all changes Kay has cared deeply about and worked hard to bring about. “We’re certainly not finished, not even remotely, but a lot has happened. Our ministry is way more diverse than it used to be, our churches way more conscious of ways they play out institutional racism.”
While she is happy to be moving on, Kay will miss the job. “I grew up in working-class Detroit,” she says. “I’ve never gotten over being astonished that I can do something worth doing for a living, and that I’ve loved doing. Imagine that.”
Photograph (above) © 2013 Adrien Bisson. An abridged version of this article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of UU World (pages 32–36).