Tech Journalism Grad a Pulitzer Prize Finalist

Ben Montgomery, a 2000 graduate of the Arkansas Tech University journalism program, was recently named a finalist in the local reporting category for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

Montgomery, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in St. Petersburg, Fla., was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work on a series entitled “For Their Own Good,” which highlighted the troubled 109-year history of the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., and how the abuse of young men housed there followed the victims for the rest of their lives.

Montgomery collaborated with fellow reporter Waveney Ann Moore and photographer Edmund D. Fountain to tell a story that led Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct an investigation into 31 graves located near the school and whether any crimes were committed that led to the deaths of the people buried there.

The Pulitzer Prizes recognize achievement in newspaper journalism, literature and music composition. The award program has existed since 1917, and it is administered by Columbia University in New York.

Past Pulitzer Prize winners include President John F. Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

According to the St. Petersburg Times Web site, the series that Montgomery was nominated for was based on more than 100 hours of interviews.

Twenty-seven men who spent time at the Florida School for Boys (now known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys) in the 1950s and 1960s were interviewed for the series, as were current and former officials with the State of Florida, the school and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

“Most of these guys had never told a soul about their experience in Marianna,” said Montgomery. “Not their parents or wives or girlfriends. They were ashamed, or scared nobody would believe them. Once they understood that we wanted to hear them out, that we believed them, and that others were telling the same tales, the stories spilled out easy. Some of them talked and cried for hours without interjection.

“It was hard to see old men cry, and to ask them again and again to visit very painful memories,” continued Montgomery. “But you could sense that many of them felt it was therapy. A few of them even thanked me afterward, as if I had helped them get a weight off their chests. That’s pretty rewarding, when you are thanked for just listening.”

Montgomery, Moore and Fountain combined to make four visits to the school in question over a period of five months as part of their reporting for the series.

They also utilized newspaper clippings, congressional and court testimony and archival photographs to piece the history of the Florida School for Boys together.

The series was one of three finalists for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in the local reporting category. The top prize went to Raquel Rutledge of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“I’m honored, and humbled,” said Montgomery. “I’m proud of the work and the recognition. The fact is, I wish we would have won. I’ve felt a mix of emotions that typically exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Happiness and dissappointment. Now that I have a taste, I want to win. I’d like nothing more than to represent my newspaper and family and Arkansas Tech in a way that makes them proud.”

Montgomery was a member of the football program at Arkansas Tech during his college days, and he played on the Wonder Boys’ 1999 Gulf South Conference championship team.

A defensive back from Oklahoma City, Okla., Montgomery appeared in 43 career games, including 14 starts. He made 137 career tackles.

Montgomery also served as editor of the Arka Tech student newspaper at Arkansas Tech.

He went on to work at The Courier in Russellville, the Standard-Times in San Angelo, Texas, the Times Herald-Record in New York’s Hudson River valley and the Tampa Tribune before landing at the St. Petersburg Times.

Montgomery lives in Tampa, Fla., with his wife, fellow 2000 Arkansas Tech graduate Jennifer Evanchyk Montgomery, and their children.

“After we won the GSC in ’99, (head coach) Steve Mullins stood up in the stands and said something like: you boys keep battling your butts off and this will carry you the rest of your life,” said Montgomery. “I think of that often. It seems silly to say this — cliche even — but the lessons you learn in football, and the lessons I learned in four years at Tech, are incredibly simple: work hard, and with a little luck, good things happen.”