Voices united over friend's illness

The Baltimore Sun

Young Mya Montgomery is a patient, calm and obedient child. She has a conspicuous adultlike maturity when she opens the door for guests at her parents' modest home in Northeast Baltimore. Her almond eyes and petite frame peek from just above and behind the doorknob. She smiles slightly but doesn't speak.

Mya gets permission to open the door from her father, Gavin Montgomery, who uses a joystick-operated, motorized wheelchair as the result of Parkinson's disease, the degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that impairs motor skills, speech and other functions of the body.

Mya's father was once one of Baltimore's great gospel radio announcers, for WWIN-AM Spirit 1400, and during the height of his career, he was known as Gavin "Baby Bishop" Montgomery.

With those days behind him, Montgomery, who is married and has two other young children, faces an uncertain future. Friends in the business recently held a fundraiser for him.

And the 37-year-old realizes that his life will never be the same.

"There is no verbiage in the English language that can explain my hurt, my disappointment," he said in a low, mournful tone, just above a whisper.

The once-crisp, effortless, velvet voice of radio is replaced with a halting, strained delivery. Listening is much like watching a leaking faucet. The words form slowly, deliberately, like drops of water, growing, expanding and then dropping from his lips.

"It is because of the beautiful faces of my babies, there are days where I don't feel worthy of being called a man," he said. "Not being able to provide for my wife. I don't feel worthy of being called a husband."

Montgomery was born in Southeast Washington. He went to the prestigious Shenandoah Conservatory for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. He tells the story of stumbling onto his first radio job in 1988 at age 18 at Smooth Jazz 103.4 in Richmond, Va.

Montgomery won concert tickets for Patti LaBelle and stopped by the station to pick them up. Before his visit to the station, the program director mentioned Montgomery had a great voice for radio. Montgomery brushed off the comment. While getting the tickets for the concert, he was offered a radio-announcing job.

His eyes light up as he remembers the beginnings of his radio career. It was a career that stretched from Richmond to Washington at WPGC-AM. He worked for the now-defunct B.E.T. Soundstage doing gospel. He spent time in Nashville, Tenn., using the richness of his voice to introduce stage acts like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, from behind a curtain.

He worked in Baltimore at 92Q, V103 and Heaven 600, but caught his big break when he landed a job at Radio One's WWIN, Spirit 1400-AM. "He was very, very smooth, to the point where he did an awesome show. He gave it his all," said Duane Johnson, gospel director and on-air host at WEAA-FM. Johnson was one of the fundraiser show hosts in June.

When Johnson worked for WERQ-FM, he and Montgomery became friends. WWIN-AM and WERQ-FM were both in the William Donald Schaefer building in downtown Baltimore.

"He never made a mistake," Johnson said. "He was 'the man' when it comes to broadcasting."

Another voice of support comes from Doresa Harvey, midday host at WCAO, Heaven 600, who helped organize the benefit fundraiser for Montgomery held at Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore.

She has known him for 16 years. They started at V103. At the time, she was an intern. Montgomery was a new hire.

"It breaks my heart, it breaks my heart! He was such a vibrant young man," she said. "He was the provider for the family and now to see him confined to the wheelchair, I know it's taking a toll on him."

Montgomery left Spirit 1400 in 2003 on the heels of a contract dispute, a situation he cannot discuss because of a gag order that remains in place.

He then went on to do voiceover work locally and nationally, as well as eventually becoming the media director for Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Druid Hill Avenue.

Shortly after that, the Parkinson's began to show itself.

"I would forget where I was going and at one point I crashed my Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer and totaled it. The next Sunday, I was at church and I remember [the Rev.] Frank Reid saying to me, 'Bishop, you don't look well.' I had a fever of 103 that morning," Montgomery recalled.

Despite growing signs of a serious illness, Montgomery did not go to see a doctor right away, even at the urging of his wife, Kymberly.

On a Sunday in January 2005 came the incident that forced Gavin Montgomery to realize something was terribly wrong.

"I got to Bethel and collapsed in the balcony, and woke up in the hospital. They couldn't find anything wrong," he said.

Montgomery's symptoms slowly grew more pronounced over the next two years.

When a final diagnosis was made, Montgomery was home alone. His wife was at work. His children were in school.

"She called me, my primary care physician, and said, as of this moment, you are no longer allowed to drive a car. You are no longer allowed to work, starting right now. When we finished the conversation, I hung the phone up and just," he says, pausing for a few seconds, staring into space and slowly shaking his head. "Released it. I had been holding it, knowing that something was wrong, but did not know exactly what, and did not tell my wife the full extent of what symptoms I had been experiencing, but I cried uncontrollably for an hour."

He is glad that his wife remains at his side, although she admits to experiencing bouts of anger, frustration, heartbreak and the need to vent.

"It's really hard. It's just really hard. I miss my husband. I miss being able to walk [with him], to hold hands," says Kymberly Montgomery, who works as a secretary at a local hospital.

But she also speaks candidly of what she believes are her for-better-for-worse responsibilities as a wife.

"I have learned through this situation, what God's definition of what commitment is, not man's, because nobody would stay as long as this has been going on," she said. "I have a supernatural definition to honor, of what commitment is. I then think about, what if I were sick? What if I were sick? Would I want someone to leave me, and it wasn't my fault, and I didn't do anything to get sick? How selfish would that be? That thought always pulls me back in check, always!"

The Montgomerys' children, 9-year-old Mya, 6-year-old daughter Zoe and 3-year-old son Zion, also keep her rooted. She is now the breadwinner of the family and the glue that keeps things together.

Despite the daily difficulties and anguish over the future, she has hope, or at least she clings to a wish: "That we are restored to complete health," she said. "That we can rise above this and move forward."

Gavin Montgomery said his family has been a great help to him. "You must have a core family that you can depend on, communicate with, no matter what the issue or topic. There are days when I just vent to my wife about how I'm feeling, and all the time, it ain't holy," he said.

unisun@baltsun.com

Online

Watch video of some of the artists at Gavin Montgomery's benefit at baltimoresun.com/montgomery

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