A literal trailblazer in both Ohio government and across the national landscape, Betty Montgomery served as the state’s first woman Attorney General and Auditor of State. She also served as State Senator, and in her first elected position, Wood County Prosecuting Attorney, she was the only woman prosecuting attorney in the state. Shared with her permission, as well as her characteristic warmth and humor, here are Betty’s “10 Rules” that have guided her throughout her distinguished career.
I have been blessed. I was raised by loving parents who believed in their faith, family, and the American dream. They taught their children that there was no barrier to personal success. In a family of strong women, this meant that being a woman was clearly no barrier and no excuse to personal achievement. We had assigned reading on setting goals. We were expected to work hard and to honor the blessings we’d been given.
So, it was in this context that when, in 1973, my father took me to an Elks summer picnic, he was proud to introduce me to a local law professor, telling him that I was entering law school that fall. This was the setting of my first rule. When the professor lamented that it was “too bad” women went to law school, taking up a man’s place only to later get married, have children, and drop out of the legal profession, I decided that this said much more about him than me and I didn’t engage in a fight with him.
Rule 1: You Are Invited to a lot of Fights. You Don’t Have to Accept all the Invitations.
I went to law school, working full-time during the day. When seeking a job as a court clerk, I was told that women law clerks were only hired to work for women judges. The problem was obvious: In 1973, there was only one woman judge on the nine-judge court, narrowing my opportunities considerably, which leads me to my second rule:
Rule 2: Be Polite, But be Persistent
I called the court administrator’s office regularly, inquiring about available law clerk jobs until, finally, months later, a male judge had a job opening. He was converting his law clerk position to a secretary- and could I type? Of course I could type! He didn’t ask how fast… so, within weeks of my being hired as a secretary, I became a criminal clerk. This leads me to my third piece of advice.
Rule 3: The Side Door is Still an Entrance
I didn’t want to be a secretary, (it was the height of the women’s movement and I, after all, was a law student!) but I knew that I needed the court experience. That said, once inside, I thought that I could prove my value and eventually become a clerk, while at the same time gain valuable experience. My thoughts were that, while I may not have come through the front door, and I may have to wash the dishes (figuratively), I would eventually be able to sit at the sought-out table with the other law students serving the court. The side door was still an entrance.
In those days, it was the custom in the courts that clerks would eventually become bailiffs for their judge once the bailiff, who was also a law student, graduated and began law practice. Thus, when my judge’s bailiff graduated, I expected this long standing custom to be followed and that the judge would hire me for the coveted bailiff’s position (and pay raise). He didn’t hire me. This leads me to my fourth learning lesson.
Rule 4: Don’t Slam the Door, Close it Gently
I was demoralized. My women law-student friends urged me to quit- to make the grand gesture. I talked to the judge and, while I didn’t fully understand his explanation, I felt I wanted to prove to him that he had made the wrong decision. I wanted to prove to him through my work- not my words, not the grand gesture – that he had made a mistake. I respected him a great deal. I stayed. Five years later, I was to get a heartwarming letter from him, apologizing and acknowledging his error.
After graduating from law school, I started looking for a job. I wanted to be a prosecutor. In 1976, there were few women criminal prosecutors. I exercised Rule 2, being polite but persistent, and on my now-regular calls to the newly elected Wood County prosecutor, I caught him on the day his juvenile prosecutor had quit. He was desperate and I was available. I had the job. Mind you, I didn’t really want to be a juvenile prosecutor since that was where women lawyers were traditionally relegated (as well as to child support and domestic cases). That said, I exercised Rule 3, knowing that if l got my experience as juvenile prosecutor, I was inside the office (by the side door) and had a better chance to become a criminal prosecutor. And it worked!
Two years later, I moved from juvenile prosecutor to city prosecutor of Perrysburg. I had, in those two short years, worked long hours with police departments and social service agencies from all over the county. I had been engaged in community work, and I had certainly confirmed the value of Rule 5.
Rule 5: Humor is Important
I confirmed the value of taking the job seriously, but not myself. Humor was an important part of our family. Humor is a universal language, and once the overwhelmingly male police community saw that I would work loyally for them, laugh with them and at myself, they came to understand – without lecture – that a woman could do the job. Which brings me to Rule 6.
Rule 6: Volunteer
In the several years after law school, I volunteered to help my state representative, Speaker of the House Charles Kurfess, run for governor. He lost that race in the primary, but became our Wood County Republican chairman.
Volunteering cannot be overvalued. I got to know officeholders, political supporters, and the general public as we stuffed envelopes, knocked on doors, and marched in parades. Most importantly, I got to know Chuck Kurfess, who was a committed public servant and soon-to-be political mentor.
One early Saturday morning, three years out of law school and just days before the candidate filing deadline, Speaker Kurfess called and asked me to run for Wood County prosecuting attorney. The incumbent had dropped out with little notice and he needed a candidate. Would I run?
I said “yes” immediately, despite the fact that there were no women county prosecutors in the state. Why? My parents were in sales, making a living without a safety net. They taught their children to be willing to try. Thus, my Rule 7:
Rule 7: There Are No Guarantees in Life – Risk!
I won, and in the first months as county prosecutor was preparing for my first murder trial. Oh, how I wished I were silver tongued, how I wished I looked like a sleek magazine model, and how I feared losing my first major case! I am not silver tongued, and I am very far from being a size-6, runway model – which leads me to Rule 8.
Rule 8: Be Your Authentic Self
The jury will spot a phony- as will friends and colleagues. My strengths lay in solid preparation, and my abilities were in telling a story clearly. I knew the evidence – not me – was the star of any jury trial. The jury returned a guilty verdict. For the record, while I still want to be a size 6, I know that we all have been given certain gifts. Our job is to cultivate and nurture those talents – and to be the best “me” we can be.
I loved being county prosecutor when, after eight years, I was asked to run for a state senate seat that had opened unexpectedly. I gave up running unopposed for my third-term election after a sleepless night, asking my present self what my future self would think of me if l were afraid to risk this leap. I followed Rule 7. I jumped in to a four-way primary, and served a rewarding six years before running for attorney general and, later, for auditor of state. I lived (albeit sometimes imperfectly) the rules I have discussed, but was soon to add a new one, learning the hard but valuable lesson regarding losing. The year 2006 was a devastating one for Republicans as they suffered a loss of all statewide officials as a result of an executive branch scandal. I was one of the victims of that sweep, as I lost my re-bid to become attorney general for a third term. I learned very personally the lessons of Rule 9.
Rule 9: Failure is not Fatal
While losing was undeniably very painful and had lingering effects (I can’t deny that), it wasn’t fatal: I did not die. I knew that I had been blessed with being able to serve in public office for decades. I still had a wonderful family, still lived in a great country, and still had opportunities to do meaningful work in my profession. Failure gave me a time to evaluate my blessings and my priorities (past and present), as well as to review my many weaknesses. I had observed in my years in elective office that the true mark of character is how those who win or lose handle it. Winning without recognition that it is not done alone, or losing without recognition that it should not be a scapegoating exercise is critical to growing as a thoughtful individual. The recipe for a well-lived life does not include the seasonings of bitterness or pride.
The most important of all the lessons I have learned along the way, however, is Rule 10.
Rule 10: Pay it Forward
As each of us has had opportunities given to us, we too have an obligation to help give opportunities to others. We are like the proverbial turtle on a fencepost: we did not get there ourselves. It is for us, who have benefited from the kindness of others, to share similar kindnesses with others. While this seems a hackneyed observation, this is nevertheless a universal truth. Blessings are born from kindness, and a life well-lived has many blessings.
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