John Montford will give commencement addresses at this weekend’s ceremonies.
John T. and Debbie Montford are surprisingly approachable people.
When he introduces himself as, “just John; I got a juris doctorate, not a Ph.D., so I've never really been comfortable being called ‘doctor,'” one tends to forget his reputation as an aggressive criminal district attorney and subsequent higher-profile positions: 14 years as a Texas state senator and five years as the first chancellor of the brand-new Texas Tech University System.
Debbie is immediately warm and charming. The Texas Tech student-turned-first-lady-turned-regent is the kind of person whose whole demeanor indicates no one is a stranger for long.
They're also humble, sharing credit with others for accomplishments such as an unprecedentedly successful fundraising campaign, the birth of the Public Art Program, the rebirth of Texas Tech's Arbor Day celebration and the creation of notable campus sites including the United Supermarkets Arena and the Pfluger Fountain in Memorial Circle.
“The Montfords epitomize all that is great about the Texas Tech University System,” said Robert Duncan, Texas Tech University System chancellor. “Their humility, concern for others, spirit of giving and leadership of the system is unmatched. Terri and I are proud to call them friends.”
And after more than two decades of connection to the university, they're not done yet.
Coming to Texas Tech
John was a student at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst when he came out to West Texas for the first time to help on his uncle's farm in Littlefield.
“Driving past the campus, Texas Tech had the prettiest girls I'd ever seen,” he recalled.
Debbie, who was born in Littlefield and grew up in Friona, said her first recollections of Texas Tech came from her older brother, who had by then moved to Lubbock. But it wasn't long before she came to campus to make memories of her own.
She started studying political science.
“I was drawn to that,” she said. “At that time I could have never envisioned we would have this political tilt in our lives with John's career.”
After earning his bachelor's degree in 1965 and finishing law school in 1968, both at the University of Texas, John served as a judge advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps until he moved to Lubbock in April 1971. As he would later say, “I didn't go to Texas Tech, but I got here as quickly as possible.”
He started practicing law at the firm of Key, Carr, Evans & Fouts in Lubbock. One day, a young woman walked into his office to deliver some papers. A conversation turned into a friendship, and before long that blossomed into a romance.
John and Debbie married in late 1975. Three years later, he was elected Lubbock County district attorney and quickly earned a reputation as a tough prosecutor. At the time, Lubbock was seeing a lot of aggravated robberies and homicides.
“For right or wrong, I got the nickname ‘John T. 99' because I secured a lot of 99-year sentences,” he said. As a gift to John, Sheriff Sonny Keesee cut out a section of the jail wall where an inmate had carved “If you can't do the time, don't do the crime, because John T. will give you 99.”
On the heels of that position, John was elected to the Texas Senate in 1982, where he became chair of the Senate finance committee and later Senate president pro tem. While there, he proposed the creation of the Texas Tech University System.
“I spent 14 years in the Senate, and Texas Tech was one of my primary responsibilities,” he said. “I've always been a supporter of higher education. That's what makes Texas a great state: the opportunities available here.”
As his familiarity with Texas Tech grew, he began to realize something.
“One thing has been pervasive throughout my knowledge of Texas Tech: I have never talked to anyone who attended Texas Tech who didn't like it,” John said. “So I thought I might have missed the boat by not going to Texas Tech. It really impressed me.”
Taking the reins
In the mid-1990s, Texas Tech alumnus Edward E. Whitacre Jr. was chairman of the Board of Regents in addition to his day job as chairman and chief operating officer of Southwestern Bell. As plans solidified for the creation of the university system, Whitacre reached out to John about becoming its first chancellor.
Initially, John refused. He was happy as chair of the Senate finance committee. But as a conservative Democrat in Texas politics, he realized he was one of a vanishing breed, so in 1996, he accepted the appointment and the reins of the Texas Tech University System.
“Being the chancellor at Texas Tech was the best job I ever had,” John said. “I was able to accomplish more for education there than in any other role. Debbie focused on campus beautification and appearance; I focused on raising money.”
The chancellor's job is to increase the value of a Texas Tech degree while making students and alumni proud and involved in the community, Debbie said. It's about creating excitement and passion about Texas Tech and its possibilities and putting the university on the map.
“He wanted to move the university forward,” she said. “That was first and foremost, and the way you do that is to raise funds, and he was very good at that. When you're passionate about something, you can sit and tell the story of why funds are needed, why scholarships are needed, why we need new labs and more faculty, trying to get the message points across. I think that was important.”
John was supposed to start his new job on a Monday in September 1996. But his role as fundraiser-in-chief couldn't wait that long.
“The Friday before that, we got word that United Supermarkets was willing to make a substantial gift to help build an arena, so we went to see the CEO of United and asked for $10 million,” John said. “He agreed to give $10 million. I told him, ‘I've never been chancellor, I've never built an arena and I've sure never had anyone give me $10 million. Can we write this out?' So we wrote it out on a typewriter.”
John credits assistant vice chancellor Steve Locke, who was the senior associate athletics director and executive director of the Red Raider Club at the time, with laying the groundwork for that gift. Out of it would grow the United Supermarkets Arena.
One of John Montford's greatest fundraising achievements, though, was the Horizon Campaign.
“I said I wanted to raise $250 million and I thought the board would have me committed as insane,” he said. “But when I started making calls, I found a lot of people who hadn't heard from Texas Tech in 20 years and were happy to give.”
While the Horizon Campaign is often remembered for funding renovations to the Jones AT&T Stadium, that was only a small part of it.
“We raised $511 million in my tenure, and 90 percent of that was for academic purposes,” John said proudly. And then true to his nature, he immediately quipped, “I thought I was something special, then Kent Hance raised $1 billion.”
The ‘fun' in fundraising
Montford said he has more than enough good stories from his fundraising days to fill a book, which he may do someday.
On one occasion, a donor in Denver agreed to give the university several million dollars. Not long after, Montford received a hand-addressed envelope with a hand-written return address from the donor. Opening it, he found a hand-written check for the agreed upon amount.
Surprised that the donor felt safe sending such a large check relatively unsecured, John called him.
“I told him, ‘I would have been happy to come up to Denver to get that from you,'” he said. “And he said, ‘What would someone do if they stole it, cash it at 7-Eleven?'”
John also recalled what he termed “the only time I needed a defibrillator in fundraising.”
Mike Moses, who then was deputy chancellor for systems operations, had tracked down an alumnus who had made a large donation to another institution.
“We did our research and we were going to ask for $10 million,” John said. “We stayed up most of the night, we had our paperwork, we had rehearsed our presentation. He opens the door and says, ‘I'm not prepared to talk about a gift in excess of $25 million.' My heart skipped a beat.”
While John was working with donors and the Legislature to increase Texas Tech's endowments, Debbie was working on recruitment. Without a previously defined role for the first lady of the Texas Tech University System, she was able to shape it as she wanted.
“I knew I wanted to be a part of the campaign but in a different way than John was,” she said. “I am more of a visual person, so I looked at campus beautification.”
Debbie took walks around the campus with regent Jim Sowell, founder and CEO of Jim Sowell Construction Co., who pointed out opportunities for improvement.
“We thought an emphasis on beautification would help recruitment,” Debbie said. “He told me if I would get engaged, if I would raise money, he would invest in it. When someone gives you that opportunity, you take it. So that started Campus Caregivers.”
The program included planting trees and irrigating the campus, among other projects. A natural extension of Campus Caregivers was the revival of Texas Tech's Arbor Day celebration, which began in 1938 but had faded over the years. Debbie worked with the Pfluger family to create the fountains in the center of Memorial Circle and with artist Glenna Goodacre for Park Place, the statues now seen along Broadway in front of the Human Sciences building.
“I'm not so comfortable in saying ‘I did this, I did that;' I don't think it's ever about ‘I,'” Debbie said. “John had a lot of great initiatives that were ‘I'-based because he had the vision, but he will tell you up front, it's a team effort. You have to have buy-in, and you have to have a team work on it. I didn't do anything. I worked with people to create visions to move certain things down the road. Not one person creates anything, any opportunity or particular legacy. It's all team-based. If anything, you just try to get people to buy into a vision of what can be.”
Debbie's vision was a campus with lots of visual appeal. She felt strongly about the need for a public art program, so she went to the Board of Regents and asked them to dedicate 1 percent of the budget of each construction and renovation project to public art.
“That was a big vote when you look at size of budgets for our buildings,” she said. “One could argue, ‘why don't you do set-asides for a lot of other things?' But sometimes this is the only way you can address these needs. We'd build these buildings and they'd be great, but then there would be dirt, maybe a sidewalk and no irrigation because there was no thought given to it. We had to make some decisions and finish it. You wouldn't build your own house and then never finish it out.”
She also saw campus beautification as a way to attract donors who might not be interested in buildings or athletics.
“I saw them also as opportunities to get other people involved,” Debbie said. “Maybe they weren't drawn to scholarships. Maybe they weren't necessarily going to be big donors to name places and buildings. When you fundraise, you need to have a place in your menu for all levels of gifts. All I tried to do was have some offerings of ways people could get involved in the Horizon Campaign that were not in competition with what John was trying to do, so they were complementary.”
One small but significant change John made as chancellor was instructing workers at campus entrance booths to give the Guns Up hand signal instead of simply waving.
“You need to feel welcome when you approach something that looks like a guard gate,” Debbie said. “There had been a lot of talk in the community about Texas Tech seeming to be closed in. John tried to change that. They're not there to keep people out; the perception needed to be, ‘We're here to provide information and welcome people in.' This is a campus we want everybody to be able to come in, and those places of entry are just that, a place of entry – not a place to stop people.”
It contributes to the welcoming spirit of Texas Tech that Debbie said she recognized from her student days upon coming back as first lady.
“One thing I noticed about Texas Tech, it has always kept this kind of close-family, small-town feel, wholesome, where faculty and administration seem to care about the students,” she said. “I know as universities get larger, sometimes that personal touch is difficult to hang on to. I think Texas Tech has tried mightily to ensure that doesn't get lost. Some does just in sheer numbers, but I truly believe it's something the faculty and administration see as an opportunity for us to distinguish ourselves. We put emphasis on trying to do that one-on-one with students and going the extra mile to be helpful and mentoring. Texas Tech's done a good job of that.”
In that same mindset, John made a point to teach one section each semester while he was chancellor: freshman honors political science.
At the time, now-Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was the state's attorney general. As a personal favor to Montford, Abbott flew to Lubbock each semester, “wheelchair and all,” to teach class for a day.
“He is a tremendous friend and supporter of Texas Tech,” John said. “That wasn't easy for him to do. It took days out of his schedule, but he felt very committed to teaching those kids.”
As the Horizon Campaign wound down in the summer of 2001, John began to think about his eventual departure.
“The average lifespan nationally for a university chancellor was about six years and I was nearly there,” he said. “I decided I felt good about what we'd accomplished and it was time for me to move on.”
Debbie supported his decision, knowing he was going out on top.
“One of the things John does very well is put his mind to a goal, finish that goal and then step aside and let someone else run with that,” she said. “Could we have stayed? Yes, but sometimes it's best to do your deal and get out. I think you preserve your legacy that way. There is no person who stays in one job and always is on the rise. There's going to be a plateau and then a downward trend. If you look at your life and careers, you always try to leave after a job well done while everybody still loves you.”
John resigned as chancellor in September 2001. He later accepted a top position at Southwestern Bell, and he and Debbie moved to San Antonio where they have become civic leaders and continued their philanthropic efforts.
“We always kept our friends out here,” Debbie said, “but when you have a new person come in, you need to have the old person step aside and not plant themselves in trying to still be involved. We did try to keep our distance while always being supportive.”
Part of being supportive was understanding the changes they made might not last.
“It took some years to get the campus beautification and especially the public art going,” Debbie said. “I knew that was a long plan. You don't just go out and start adding these pieces; you have to have a process. When I left, I had no idea if they would continue. I realized I can start things, John can start things, but the next board, the next president, the next chancellor, they can do away with things at any time and that's just part of it. So I am very pleased everyone has embraced the efforts to keep the campus beautification and public art going; I think it's made a huge difference in the way the campus looks and in recruitment. We've gotten national recognition for our public art. It's something that adds to every building.”
Returning as a regent
As a lifetime community volunteer, Debbie had filed her appointment application with the governor's office in case she was needed for a position. When Texas Tech University System regent Mark Griffin resigned in September 2009, creating a vacancy on the board, Debbie received a phone call from the state press secretary.
Then-Gov. Rick Perry appointed her to Griffin's unexpired term on Nov. 12, 2010, and when the term expired on Jan. 31, 2011, she was reappointed for a six-year term. She is now the vice chairwoman of the board in addition to chairing the regent's rules committee. Formerly, she chaired the facilities committee and served on the academic and clinical affairs committee.
“I enjoyed serving as facilities chair of the board,” she said. “I thought it strange that I sat as facilities chair of the board when I'm the one who went before the facilities chair of the board while I was first lady of Texas Tech in order to request the 1 percent for these campus art projects. I see all these reports that come, and it's this circle of life. It's very satisfying that it has stayed important. If one creates something that others see as valuable, that's success, I guess.”
She is honored to have served the Texas Tech University System as both a first lady and a regent, but still prefers not to talk too much about her own role.
“I probably brought a different perspective to our conversations among regents because I knew how it worked inside,” she said. “It's a different animal. It's not like a corporate board or a nonprofit board. It takes a long time for new members to get up to speed, and you have a lot of information you have to process that you need to understand to make good decisions. I think I had some advantages in knowing that.
“It's always hard to talk about what you think your contributions are,” she added. “I don't want to be bragging and proud. I'd prefer other people decide what contributions I've made.”
Leaving a legacy
Texas Tech University President Lawrence Schovanec says the pair's contributions have been significant.
"John and Debbie Montford have a long history of selfless contributions and dedication to the Texas Tech University System," he said. "Through their philanthropy and leadership, they have been wonderful stewards of Texas Tech and the System's component institutions and we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude."
Debbie said it's gratifying to know people trust you to do your job well, especially when you're honored to be considered for that job.
“It's surreal in a lot of ways,” she said. “You never plan on where life is going to lead; you don't know what doors of opportunity are going to open. When John was in the Senate, I could have never envisioned that he would be at Texas Tech. You don't necessarily train for these jobs and so when you're called upon to do them, you try to make a difference and try to do it right. You try to do it in such a way that people see it as the best for Texas Tech and for the system.”
So even when her term as regent ends on Jan. 31, 2017, Debbie and John will still always be connected to Texas Tech.
“What I've learned is the world is very small,” she said. “People stay connected to Texas Tech whether they're in another city, another state or wherever. It's been this thread through our lives, through these different careers, people we meet, business associates. I don't know how you'd ever say, ‘no, I'm walking out the door and we're done.'”
“Once you're connected to Texas Tech, you're never really separated,” John agreed. “It doesn't leave you, and you don't want it to. This is a very special place. I grew attached to Texas Tech. I hope when all is said and done, I've been able to make some meaningful contribution to it.”