By Melinda Burns
Jimmy Weber was likely the last person to see Mark Montgomery alive before a surging river of mud and rocks swept him away in Montecito on Jan. 9.
The night before disaster struck, the two friends had gotten together for a hockey game in their “beer league” at Ice in Paradise in Goleta at 10:15 p.m. Weber, 35, and Montgomery, 54, got some rare time alone before the game, just the two of them shooting the pucks and talking. They had known each other for 20 years.
It was Weber who convinced Montgomery to play hockey a decade ago, promising to shield him from injuries. Montgomery was a prominent hand surgeon and worried that the game – roller hockey – might “get physical.” As it turned out, he did get a black eye and a couple of broken ribs. But he kept coming back.
“A lot the guys on our team are in their 20s and 30s,” Weber said. “Mark was on the upper end, not the best skate or the fastest. He was a defense man and a strategic player, always well-positioned. And he was very deeply respected.
“I never heard him once, even playing hockey, ever speak ill of anybody or curse, when a lot of guys were throwing around the F-word. I thought that was pretty impressive.”
On that last night, Weber said, the game tied 4-4 and he and Montgomery headed home after midnight. Just before 4 a.m. on Jan. 9, Montgomery and his daughter, Caroline, were killed in the catastrophic debris flow that engulfed their home on Randall Road.
The news of Mark Montgomery’s death stunned the small South Coast medical community, the patients he cared for – including this reporter – and the sports teams he loved. In addition to hockey, Montgomery played in two softball leagues and was a devoted fan of the Santa Barbara Foresters, a collegiate baseball team.
“What a loss this is for us!” said Betty Ann Kurth, a nurse who worked with Montgomery at Associated Hand Surgeons in Santa Barbara for 18 years. Last June, Kurth said, the staff threw a birthday party for him in the clubhouse of her condominium complex, serving hot dogs and beer, his favorite foods.
“He was a true professional,” Kurth said. “I never saw him lose his temper in 18 years. He always said ‘thank you’ after every surgery.”
On Jan. 8, she said, as a dangerous storm barreled toward the area, one of the doctors at the office invited Montgomery and his children to spend the night – but he declined.
In the operating room, his colleagues said, Montgomery stood out for his meticulous and conscientious work; he was known as a “gentleman surgeon” who was kind to his patients and staff and never raised his voice. His signature orange clogs made an impression, too; he’d been nostalgic about them since his residency days in New York City. When they wore out, Kurth bought him another pair.
Montgomery was so quiet while he worked that there was a running joke that he didn’t like the anesthesiologists, who were used to more conversation. The nurses had to reassure them, “No, he likes you fine.”
“He would concentrate on what he was doing,” said Eric Amador, an anesthesiologist who worked with Montgomery for nine years. “But alone, he was talkative and chatty. He was a really good surgeon. He was always listening, and he was talented at what he did. He took care of so many people. He must have done 10 surgeries a week, and that adds up pretty quick.”
Marji Hajic, a Santa Barbara hand and occupational therapist who started working with Montgomery’s patients in Oxnard in 1992, said Montgomery never sent people back to work or to regular duties unless they had sufficiently healed.
“He would not let insurance, employers or anybody push him into doing what he felt wasn’t really right for the patient,” she said. “Patients said he had a ‘good aura.’ There was a humbleness about him that people perceived. They would make it their mission to make him smile. They would feel like they had hit the jackpot.”
At the same time, Montgomery had a reputation for vociferously cheering on his children from the sidelines at their baseball games and swim meets. And he himself was an accomplished athlete in multiple sports; he had been captain of his high school wrestling team, and he made many canoe trips to the lakes and rugged portages of the Canadian wilderness.
Every summer, Montgomery, a native of Brooklyn, New York, and an ardent Yankees fan, would open his Montecito home to four members of the Foresters for the season, said Bill Pintard, the general manager.
“As much as he knew about hands, he knew about baseball,” Pintard said. “I scout for the New York Yankees, so we hit it off pretty good. I enjoyed his company, and I’m going to miss it. There’s a hole in my heart.”
As for me, 10 years ago, I fell down my front steps onto a slab of concrete and landed hard on my right wrist. It was grotesquely bent back on itself; the two main bones, one on each side, were badly broken, and the pain was excruciating.
From the emergency room, under morphine, I called a workers compensation lawyer who was a friend of mine. “Get Montgomery,” she said. At my first appointment with him, I said, “I’m a writer. I’ve got to be able to type.”
It took two surgeries and a metal plate in one bone; multiple casts, slings and splints, and hundreds of hours of rehab for me to heal. In the beginning, I couldn’t hold a piece of paper, much less a pen, and Montgomery kept approving more visits to Hajic. During those months, the longest sentence he ever said to me was six words: “I-think-you’re-doing-very-well.” But I felt supremely secure in his care.
Finally, one day, Montgomery asked me, “Can you type?”
“Yes, I can,” I said, “Thanks to your great skill, I can write again.”
Montgomery is survived by his wife, Catherine, and daughter, Kate; and by his son, Duffy, who lived through the debris flow. Donations may be sent to the Mark and Caroline Montgomery Memorial Foundation at the Santa Barbara Foundation. https://www.sbfoundation.org/make-a-donation/mark-and-caroline-montgomery-memorial-fund
– Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.