Her office is piled high with unopened boxes, and a Halloween jack-o-lantern rests casually atop one of the piles. Tiny boxes of exquisite pewter measuring spoons are stacked on the right side of her desk, and a magnification machine is nestled in the corner to the left.
“I’m 86 years old,” Sylvia Montgomery laughed as she sorted through her latest shipment of merchandise at Fishermen’s Hospital gift shop. “I’m supposed to be retired!”
Sylvia, who still gets around quite well but is actually legally blind, puts in several hours a week as the purchasing coordinator for the gift shop. She insists she still doesn’t put in as much time as she should.
“Believe it or not, I’ve got a whole other storage room packed with stuff,” she assured. As she tried to prepare for the holiday gift shopping season, she took a moment to recount her years of service to abused women in Monroe County.
This year, the Domestic Abuse Shelter is celebrating 25 years in existence in Monroe County. While serving her second term as president of the local Business and Professional Women (BPW) chapter, Sylvia received a list from the state affiliate that highlighted several causes on which a smaller chapter like the Middle Keys BPW might look to focus their efforts.
After a presentation from a small group in Key West who were sheltering domestic abuse victims in their homes, Sylvia and her fellow businesswomen opted to focus their efforts on this social cause.
“We got real interested, and of course, I became a member of the board,” she laughed.
In the early 80s, Florida added a $10 fee to marriage licenses that went solely for the purpose of building shelters for victims of domestic abuse.
The group began lobbying the state for a shelter in Monroe County, and the wheels were set in motion.
“The state contacted us and asked for our bid packages, and we had just under three weeks to get everything together,” Sylvia explained.
After receiving approval for the proposed site from the Health Department and Fire Department, as well as several letters of support from community leaders and a personal phone call to Wilhelmina Harvey for variance approval, Marathon was home to the county’s first official domestic abuse shelter.
“Before that, all of us were keeping these young girls in our house,” she remembered. “My husband Chuck finally said ‘It’s me or them’.”
Before giving so much of her self and time to victims of domestic abuse, Sylvia was the owner and operator of Marathon Accounting and Bookkeeping. After 18 years of serving her numerous clients throughout Monroe County, she sold her practice.
The Philadelphia native first discovered Marathon when she and her first husband set out on a driving adventure south along the East Coast.
“We stopped at the airport in Key West to book a flight to Havana the next day,” she recounted.
“They didn’t have any seats available the next day, but there were two seats on a plane that was leaving in 30 minutes. After we finally got back home, my husband said he didn’t like any part of Florida as much as he liked the Keys. Ironically, we’d only driven through and a lot of that was in the dark!”
The following summer, the couple traveled back to the Middle Keys and purchased seven acres of property, built a home and finally relocated for good in 1960.
In her formative years, Sylvia was always very studious. She was also responsible for the care of her crippled mother, which left little time for extracurricular activities.
“Those were the days of the depression,” Sylvia remembered. “You just didn’t do much in those days.”
After high school, Sylvia went straight to a job at a metal works company in Philadelphia where she said she learned quite a bit in a short amount of time. She even attended Temple University to learn more about metallurgy, which is the study of the structure and properties of metals, their extraction from the ground, and the procedures for refining, alloying and making things from them.
In the midst of World War II, Sylvia excelled on her civil service test with her previously acquired knowledge of metal, but she still laughs to this day of her first job placement.
“I passed in metallurgy and the first place they sent me was a clothing factory,” she chuckled.
“That’s the government for you!”
She finally found her way back into her appropriate field as a naval inspector. She was charged with climbing giant ladders to collect samples from and test the durability of giant propellers before they were installed on ships. She was making a whopping $18 per week, and when she got an offer from a competing company, she promptly demanded her salary should be at least $25 per week.
“I remember my brother’s college professor telling him that nobody else is going to blow your horn for you, so it’s up to you to do it,” she remembered. “And so I did just that!”
Sylvia Montgomery still spends several hours a week purchasing and sorting through merchandise at Fishermen’s Hospital Gift Shop. “I’m supposed to be retired,” she often laughs.
Sylvia and her husband Chuck at their home in Marathon.