JACKSON, Miss. — Former Rep. Gillespie V. "Sonny" Montgomery, who during his 30 years in Congress pushed through a modernized GI Bill that boosted recruiting for the all-volunteer military, died Friday. He was 85.
Montgomery died at Jeff Anderson Regional Medical Center in his native Meridian after a long illness, said Kyle Steward, the former congressman's spokesman. He had been hospitalized since Sunday.
A conservative Democrat, Montgomery represented an east-central Mississippi district in Congress from 1967 to 1997, and for 13 years headed the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
He was a 35-year military veteran, serving in the Army in Europe during World War II, then returning to active duty during the Korean War as part of the National Guard. He retired from the Mississippi National Guard in 1980 as a major general.
The GI Bill -- which has existed in some form since 1944, when it was passed to provide education and other benefits for returning World War II veterans -- was modernized for a peacetime, volunteer force as the Montgomery GI Bill in 1984. Among other things, it introduced education benefits to National Guard and Reserve personnel.
Under the new GI Bill, veterans with two years of active service who contributed $1,200 of their own money were eligible to receive tuition payments of $300 a month for 36 months. The Army and Navy then kicked in an additional payment to bring the total benefits to roughly $17,000. The payments have been increased since then.
In a 1990 White House ceremony attended by Montgomery, the first President Bush called the 1984 bill an important component of the all-volunteer military and "among the most practical and cost-efficient programs ever devised."
Born in Meridian in 1920, Montgomery joined the Army immediately after graduating from Mississippi State College (now University) in 1943. He received a Bronze Star while serving in Europe during the war. He ran a successful insurance business in Meridian before being elected in 1956 to the state Senate.
Montgomery was elected to the U.S. House in 1966, defeating three Democrats in the primary and two opponents in the general election. He succeeded Rep. Prentiss Walker, who ran for the U.S. Senate.
He easily won 14 more terms, usually getting more than 80% of the vote. But over the years the district -- overwhelmingly Democratic in the old days of the "Solid South" -- became heavily Republican. Even Montgomery's winning total dropped to 68% in 1994 from 81% two years earlier. In 1996, a Republican, Chip Pickering, was elected to replace him.