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Q and A with Bill Montgomery

by: JIM CLARK, These days all-around adventurer and world-class octopus wrestler Bill Montgomery stays a bit closer to home, on a Southeast Portland houseboat.

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to aprominent - or not soprominent - local person.

You see an 80-year-old man limping around a cluttered houseboat near the Sellwood Bridge and you figure maybe he's taking it easy.

Then you notice he's got a framed artificial hip on the wall and it turns out it was one of four hip replacements he's had, and you realize that taking it easy has never been what Bill Montgomery is about.

In fact, outside appearances always have been deceiving when it comes to Montgomery, who spent most of his working life as a buttoned-down advertising man here in Portland, and most of the rest of it living with a style that leads authors to write characters in their books based on him. (Or Portland-born animators to name characters after him - Matt Groening's Montgomery Burns in 'The Simpsons' is named after Montgomery.)

But let's start with Montgomery's address - the Portland Rowing Club. 'It started in 1879 with college rowers. Eventually some guy's wife kicked him out, and he moved into the party shack full time,' Montgomery says.

And now? 'It's more of a houseboat moorage than a rowing club,' Montgomery admits.

But it suits him just fine. 'I can't imagine living somewhere where the scenery only changes seasonally,' he says.

Portland Tribune: You wrote advertising copy for more than 30 years. What were you most proud of?

Bill Montgomery: For 20 years I wrote commercials for Tillamook cheese, and I didn't know I could find that much to say about cheese, but I ended every one with 'If you're missing Tillamook you're missing something really good.'

Tribune: Don't mean to sound critical, but that doesn't sound all that clever.

Montgomery: You sound like my client.

Tribune: Was that your best?

Montgomery: You asked what I was most proud of. I did that for 20 years. I kept finding things to say about Tillamook cheese, which shows you there may be a God.

Tribune: But your life's work wasn't really about your work, was it?

Montgomery: I'm a world champion octopus wrestler.

Tribune: Aren't we all.

Montgomery: If you look back on that wall, in back of the trophy is the magazine article, because many people don't believe the trophy.

Tribune: So how did you become a world champion octopus wrestler?

Montgomery: There was an advertised competition for octopus wrestling. And since the largest octopi are in Puget Sound they decided to hold the first and only annual world championship.

Two other guys and I were on a team. We went to Titlow Beach in Puget Sound. Tommy Amerman, a pioneer in underwater scuba, had staked out the biggest of them all.

He went down and put blue vitriol in the hole in the floor of the sea where the octopus lived. The octopus came out upset and squirted him with ink, and the three of us brought the octopus to the surface, weighed him and claimed the world championship. He was 13 feet across and 72 pounds, and we threw him back in.

Tribune: Tommy or the octopus?

Montgomery: Tommy was a tough son of a b--. You couldn't do that.

Tribune: You've taken a lot of chances. Do you still?

Montgomery: I had an epiphany on my third hip replacement. I swore off any future parachuting, piloting, scuba diving below 100 feet, particularly with sharks, and adopted the motto 'Avoid optional trauma.'

Tribune: How old were you at the time?

Montgomery: About 70.

Tribune: Is it true there's a 'Simpsons' character based on you?

Montgomery: Montgomery Burns. Burns was the name of my longtime friend Marlene. Homer Groening (Matt Groening's father) was my buddy.

Tribune: Why is the Montgomery Burns character so different from you?

Montgomery: I don't know that he was based on me. I think he was looking for names.

Tribune: But wasn't there a character patterned after you in a murder mystery book?

Montgomery: I was the stone killer in 'Wolf's Remedy.' Doc Macomber was going to write a book, and I said gold was always a good subject. I said, Why don't you take World War II German gold and get a guy that comes across all the gold? Basically what happens is they try to get the gold to the U.S. cast in motorcycle parts and ship it and remelt it in the U.S.

Tribune: But which character is based on you?

Montgomery: Bill Montgomery. He's among a gang of four who are trying to recapture the gold and distribute it to the needy.

Tribune: But why did the author use your name for the character?

Montgomery: It guaranteed him 100 book sales, because 100 of my closest friends got a copy.

Tribune: You've had four hip replacements. Any more scheduled?

Montgomery: No. I'm walking on my knuckles now.

- Peter Korn