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Eugene and friends catch that train

Eugene Montgomery rounds up students and chaperones from Sunnycrest Elementary School to board a train at the Amtrak station in Tacoma. The students took a ride down to Portland as a reward for reading books and behaving in school. - Andy Hobbs/The Mirror
Eugene Montgomery rounds up students and chaperones from Sunnycrest Elementary School to board a train at the Amtrak station in Tacoma. The students took a ride down to Portland as a reward for reading books and behaving in school.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/The Mirror

Eugene Montgomery spent 30 years working on board passenger trains.

Nowadays, he strives to keep local kids on the right track.

The Federal Way resident created the Montgomery KOSS (Keep Our Schools Safe) Award for elementary school students who read books and stay out of trouble. A day-long train trip, along with a trophy and goody bag, rewards the kids for good behavior.

Every May, he treats selected students ages 8-10 from five Federal Way elementary schools.

The program’s roots stem from an incident Montgomery encountered while volunteering to help children read at a Seattle elementary school 15 years ago. A girl in the class brought a gun to school and planned to shoot a boy for playing with her ponytail, he said. He told students that if they promised not to bring guns to school, he would take them on a train ride.

On May 13, about 28 students from Sunnycrest Elementary in Federal Way rode down to Portland and back, with an hour-long stop at the Oregon city’s train station.

“Kids say they never would have ridden a train before,” said Montgomery, 66. “If I can get children to ride in trains when they’re kids, they’re going to ride the train as an adult.”

Also during the trip, volunteer chaperones from BECU entertained the children with lessons on saving money. Debbie Wege of BECU donned a bright orange mascot costume to become Savertooth Tiger, while fellow employees Amy Ridley, Ashley Nelson and Carylon Williams explained the value of setting goals as well as the differences between wants and needs.

Students from Woodmont, Camelot, Lake Grove and Mirror Lake elementary schools will also participate in the train rides this year. The annual program costs about $4,000, which Montgomery and his board raise through sponsorships and donations.

Montgomery’s goal is to eventually double the number of schools he reaches — but that may not be good enough.

“If I get 10 schools, I’ll push for 15,” he said.

A former New York City cab driver, Montgomery moved to Florida after getting stabbed on the job. He started as a cook with Amtrak in 1975, and his career with the company passed through New Orleans and Los Angeles. At the latter location, movie stars often rode in the sleeping bunks Montgomery tended. He met actress Whoopi Goldberg twice, and recalls meeting actor John Travolta, who at the time was preparing for his role in “Look Who’s Talking.”

“He told me his name was John Travis,” Montgomery said, mimicking Travolta’s speech mannerisms.

Montgomery moved to Federal Way about 11 years ago.

He encourages children to read one book a month because he does it too. If kids stay out of trouble and remain respectful of adults, they get to ride the train with Montgomery.

“We’re so spoiled with planes and wanting to do everything fast,” Montgomery said. “You find more Germans on trains than Americans.”

Contact writer: editor@fedwaymirror.com

For more information about the Montgomery KOSS Award or to donate, visit www.montgomerykoss.org or call (253) 815-8633.

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