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Kari Montgomery relishing her new role as WMU’s ‘First Lady’
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Kari Montgomery, pictured with her husband, WMU president Edward Montgomery, is a Michigan native.

© 2017 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

When Edward Montgomery accepted the presidency at Western Michigan University, there was no question that his wife, Kari, was happy about it. She would be returning to her native state, where she would be closer to her family and where her son, E.J., had attended college and recently accepted a job.

But Kari says the move offered her more than that.

“This is the first opportunity Ed and I have had to be involved in something together,” she says. “Ed had his campus life and his political life, and I worked full time in Bethesda (Maryland). I often had to pass on a lot of social functions because, with distance and traffic, it was difficult for me to get there.

“But it’s going to be kind of difficult now to say, ‘Nah, I’m too far away,’ when I only live a few minutes away,” she says, laughing. “So I am very excited.”

Kari, who worked at Michigan State University and in real estate in the Washington, D.C., area while helping to raise their son, E.J. and twin daughters from Ed’s first marriage, is ready for a new role in her return to Michigan.

She says she will be able to spend more time with her family, including the aunt and uncle who raised her and her sister on a farm in Portland, Michigan, after her mother died of complications of multiple sclerosis when Kari was 12.

“I grew up on my grandparents’ farm, which they bought in 1930,” she says. “When my mother got sick with MS, my aunt and uncle, who were in their 20s, bought the farm and took over raising my sister and me. They are amazing people to put up with two rotten kids. They’re in the their '70s now, and they do everything they used to do, but they are getting up there.”

Kari left Portland at age 19 — “I hit the door running,” she says — and moved to Lansing, where she worked at MSU. It was there, in 1986, that she met Edward Montgomery, who was on the faculty in the department where she worked.

“He was such a nice guy. We hit it off as friends immediately,” Kari recalls. “He had a Ph.D. from Harvard and I only had a high school education, but he treated me like I was pretty smart. He asked me questions about my life instead of ‘Can you do this for me and have it done in 20 minutes?’ I liked him right away.”

The couple married in 1994 and lived in the D.C. area. “I didn’t like it at all,” she admits. “I think Ed’s life was not very good for the first couple of years.” But even though the adjustment to D.C. was hard, having to leave the office she worked in for the past 10 years was the “hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

“I loved my work family. They were phenomenal people. I was there nine and a half hours a day. It was my happy place.”

But now, back in Michigan, Kari is looking forward to returning to the things she did growing up, especially riding horses. “I’ve had horses from the time I lived with my aunt and uncle. I cut down two acres of burdocks to earn my horse,” she says. “When we were in D.C., I volunteered for a horse rescue in Maryland. I just like to stick my face in their necks.”

While Kari won’t have any horses roaming around the yard on Short Road, she is looking forward to taking advantage of the many opportunities around the region to ride. Riding horses will also be therapeutic for Kari, who, like her mother, has multiple sclerosis. She says she is successfully managing the disease and is grateful she is still physically strong.

“Some people with MS are wheelchair-bound and have a lot of pain, and some people don’t,” she says. “Some people like me have to stay out the heat, which I learned the hard way, and I thank God I can still walk.”

She credits her continuing ability to walk to her years of riding horses, which she has always done without a saddle. “I’m not a poster child for the way a horse should be ridden,” she says, laughing, “but it’s one reason I have such strong legs.”

Kari says she is also ready to embrace her duties as the new “first lady of Kalamazoo.”

“I have no idea what that means but will try to figure it out as I go. I’m very interested in students, and I’m a very approachable person, so I hope the students will feel comfortable saying hi to both of us.”

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On Meeting Edward Montgomery

“He was such a nice guy. We hit it off as friends immediately. He had a Ph.D. from Harvard and I only had a high school education, but he treated me like I was pretty smart. He asked me questions about my life instead of ‘Can you do this for me and have it done in 20 minutes?’ I liked him right away.”

—Kari Montgomery, wife of WMU President Edward Montgomery