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Geology emerita leaves lasting legacy of dedication and service

March 3, 2021

Carla Montgomery

When Dr. Carla Montgomery passed away on Feb. 1, she left a legacy that can never be erased.

“We are heartbroken to learn of Dr. Montgomery’s passing,” said Catherine Squires, Vice President of University Advancement and President and CEO of the NIU Foundation. “Carla’s selfless dedication to the causes she held dear will resound for decades through the funds she established to help NIU students achieve their dreams.”

Montgomery gave to NIU every year for more than three decades. One of her endowments helps graduate school students travel to present their research; another ensures that the NIU Libraries will always have the resources to make acquisitions. She also supported scholarships in geology and geochemistry, providing students with valuable hands-on field camp experiences. She supported graduate assistantships, the women’s golf program, the music program, and made generous contributions to other donors’ initiatives.

Montgomery established her library endowment to celebrate the NIU Libraries’ acquisition of its 2 millionth volume. The endowment provides for acquisitions, ensuring the libraries’ collections can grow for years to come.

“Books have always been important to me,” Montgomery said at the time. “Books have kept me company, entertained me on rainy days, and introduced me to a host of exciting new subjects and ideas. No library can have too many books.”

Montgomery held degrees from Wellesley College, Dartmouth College, and MIT, where she was the first woman to complete the Ph.D. program. She joined the faculty of NIU’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences in 1978.

Early in her career at NIU, Montgomery was asked to teach the general-education course in environmental geology, a field she had never formally studied. She enjoyed it immensely but found textbooks in the subject were lacking. So, she wrote her own. That text, now in its 12th edition, remains in use at colleges and universities across the country.

Montgomery used the profits from that textbook to establish her undergraduate scholarship. She went on to write three more textbooks.

Early in her tenure as a faculty member, Montgomery joined the university administration as associate dean of the Graduate School. She served in that capacity for 19 years and was instrumental in building the research and graduate profile of the university and promoting minority student success in graduate education. From 2005 to 2008, she held the role of acting associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Carla was brilliant, charming, beautiful,” said friend Sue Doederlein, a retired professor of English who served alongside Montgomery as an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Her brilliance was an enormous contribution to Northern because the profits from her textbook were donated to NIU. Carla was also a talented singer who gave her gifts to the world of music at Northern and in the community. The university has lost one of its greatest gifts; I have lost one of my dearest friends.”

Montgomery received many awards, including awards for teaching, service, philanthropy, and faculty excellence. In 1987, she was recognized with election as a Fellow to the Geological Society of America. She also served stints on the boards of the Illinois Association of Graduate Schools, Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools, the National Research Council’s Minority Doctoral Fellowships Program, and review panels for the National Science Foundation.

“Carla was an amazing human.  She was generous and always looking for ways to help people and to have a positive impact on the world,” said Professor Mark Fischer, Chair of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. “When Carla learned that students were having trouble affording summer field schools, she established a fund to help pay their expenses.  When she learned graduate students were missing opportunities for research and travel, she created a fund to support graduate students.  When Carla learned that our students were struggling to learn mineralogy and petrography using 30-year-old microscopes, she donated nearly $100,000 to buy new ones.”

In addition to her financial support, Montgomery was well known for her emotional support and mentorship of students, particularly to female students in the male-dominated field of geosciences. Montgomery was uniquely qualified to encourage NIU women to reach for the stars. She was the first woman to complete the Ph.D. program in geochemistry at MIT and the first woman to achieve tenure in NIU’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences.

“Carla’s curiosity and desire to learn were unquenchable,” Fischer said. “This passion was one of the most important traits she nurtured in every student with whom she interacted. She didn’t just talk about these things; she was a living example.”

Montgomery’s generous contributions of time, talent, and financial support have left an indelible mark on Northern Illinois University. Those who would like to contribute to her legacy are encouraged to donate to one of her favorite causes through the NIU Foundation.