Biology staff member honored for ‘herculean’ work

Massey Award winner Summer Montgomery ’81 is a student service specialist in the University’s largest department.

Summer Montgomery wearing t-shirt reading
More than 40 years after taking a biology class at Coker Hall, Summer Montgomery provides support to students, faculty and staff in the department. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In 1981, her senior year, Summer Montgomery took a class unrelated to her major in radio, television and motion pictures: Botany 10. Now, 43 years later, Montgomery works as a student service specialist for UNC-Chapel Hill’s biology department in Coker Hall, just down the hall from where that class was held in Room 201.

The botany course’s instructor made a big impact on the young Tar Heel.

“His name was Dr. William Koch, but he made sure everyone called him Willy,” Montgomery said. “He taught me how to think outside of the box, expand my mind and realize that it’s never too late to learn something new.”

Montgomery credits much of her personal success to this advice. That success includes the 2024 Massey Award, which honors “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees.

“It’s the biggest honor of my life,” Montgomery said, and the comments from the nominators make it clear that it is a well-deserved one. They described Montgomery’s work as “supportive, dedicated and herculean.”

Her connection to the campus she now serves dates back as long as she can remember. Montgomery has fond memories of being on campus as a child and attending Tar Heel football games with her father, a Carolina alumnus.

“I’m a Carolina girl,” Montgomery said. “I was born a Carolina girl.”

On top of a love for all things Carolina, her parents also emphasized the importance of education. Her father was an education professor at Catawba College, and her mother was an eighth-grade teacher. This appreciation for education was heightened by the instructors she had at Carolina, particularly Koch.

But Montgomery’s life journey took an unexpected detour after her graduation from Carolina.

“I became a flight attendant,” Montgomery said. “I loved it, but I learned it was a different world out there. It made me realize Chapel Hill is really magical, so I quickly moved back here during that time.”

Montgomery held administrative and managerial positions in the former recreation and leisure studies department and in the ROTC program before joining the biology department in 2010. Biology is the largest department on campus, with over 2,800 biology majors and 70 faculty members. Her primary duties include student registration and course scheduling. On any given day, she may be actively working in five different semesters.

While the job is stressful at times, Montgomery finds comfort in an office decorated with objects connected to her interests. Her “Twilight Zone” lunchboxes, a life-size standee of Charles Darwin and other knickknacks also spark joy among the biology department’s students and faculty.

“I love my job working here with students,” Montgomery said. “I just want us all to work in a place where we can all still have fun and I hope I leave a good impact on people.”

Reflecting on her Massey Award, Montgomery feels as if her time at Carolina has truly come full circle.

“Willy passed just before I started working with the department in 2010,” Montgomery said. “I don’t think I realized what an impact he had on me until I was older. But I’m in the same building he once was, and I have a copy of his obituary here on my desk. It makes me feel great.”

Montgomery still finds time to sit in on classes, keeping up with what’s going on and expanding her mind over four decades after she graduated.

It’s safe to say her former Botany 10 instructor would be proud.