In 1980, Steven Montgomery’s career as a filmmaker seemed to be off to a brilliant start.
The Fort Wayne native had released a documentary film about the teenage divers at Indiana University’s summer diving camp run by famed diving coach “Hobie” Billingsley, trainer of some 100 national champions and several Olympic bronze and gold medal winners.
As a teenager, Montgomery had attended the diving camp and had gone on to become a Junior Olympic diving champion. He was, as the T-shirts worn by the divers at the camp proclaimed, one of Hobie’s Heroes.
He wanted the film to inspire audiences by showing the young divers facing their fears in the potentially injurious sport.
Montgomery’s half-hour, low-budget film, Hobie’s Heroes, resonated with audiences and was met with wide acclaim. It premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was praised in the New York Times, and shown on national TV and in film festivals around the world, where it picked up numerous awards.
Montgomery had his career all planned out. He would direct and produce one more documentary, then go on the direct features. But things didn’t turn out as he planned.
On the evening of April 8th, Montgomery, who lives in New York City, gave a talk at the Indiana Memorial Union in which he described his disillusionment and his renewal. He called his talk, “Achieving Success After My Dream Failed to Come True.”
“What do you do after your dream fails to come true?” he asked the audience in the Whittenburger Auditorium. “When all your efforts are seen to be futile? When that success you’ve imagined over and over doesn’t come to pass?”
Montgomery told the audience how the success of Hobie’s Heroes had fired up his desire to inspire audiences and “change the world” through the medium of film.
“I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do with my life as a filmmaker. To encourage people, and to even help make a better world.”
Montgomery had his filmmaking career all planned out. He would make one more documentary and then direct Hollywood features. But funding for several film projects fell through. He calls that time the most difficult period of his life.
“I was bitter and resentful that I was being prevented from doing the thing that I really loved.”
It took twelve years before Montgomery could make his second film, a documentary about a Moroccan marketplace that he hoped would change people’s stereotypes about Arabs. The years passed as he sought funding for his next project, and he grew tired of waiting for the money to come in. A comment from his mother made him take stock of his life.
“One day my mother said to me, ‘Steve, you got to get a job. So you’ll have something when you retire.’ I spent months resisting this idea. But I knew she was right.”
Montgomery got a job as a fundraiser for a small non-profit organization. He hated the job, which he found “tedious.”
“I remember one night I went out to dinner after work alone to Burger King and said to myself ‘What happened to the life I used to have, when I was so passionate about telling a story in a film? What happened to my ideals?’”
But a subsequent job as a fundraiser for the New York Philharmonic brightened his prospects. He loved hearing the Philharmonic play, and was excited to be writing proposals for their concerts and education programs.
That was five years ago. Now, Montgomery is an respected independent fundraising consultant. His specialty is helping New York City non-profits find grants in the areas of the arts, social services, and workforce development.
“And often when I’m writing a proposal, I imagine how a non-profit program will help people in the future, just as I used to visualize how a film would benefit an audience. And I write with much enthusiasm.”
Montgomery spoke with pride about the some of the programs he’s worked on. His fundraising skills have helped bring Shakespeare to poor neighborhoods, provide vocational training for dropouts, and pair caseworkers to young pregnant women in a Lower East Side housing project.
“And so, it seems that my work is helping to make a better world. And this was my goal when I left Indiana to become a filmmaker so many years ago.”
Montgomery ended his talk by offering advice to others whose dreams have failed to come true.
“Even when things are at their worst, keep the faith. Don’t fail to listen to your mother’s good advice. And then, look for an open door, and see what the world has in store for you next.”
After his talk, Montgomery was all smiles as he greeted well-wishers in the audience. He seemed happy to be inspiring people with his message of renewal.
But as he told a reporter after his talk, he has not completely reconciled his career as a fundraiser with his desire to be a Hollywood filmmaker. As he put it, “The dream just doesn’t go away overnight.”
Steven Montgomery has issued a twenty-fifth anniversary DVD of Hobie’s Heroes that includes follow-up stories on the divers. The DVD is available in some local public libraries.