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Gratia Montgomery, 77; many benefitted from her giving

Gratia (Rinehart) Montgomery began her life as a philanthropist on a smaller scale. If someone needed medical bills paid, she took care of them. Anonymously, she gave money to the local high school band to attend a competition, to a tennis club for boys, and to countless other causes.

Eventually, her giving ambitions grew, and she began donating to large institutions such as St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford. Providing for medical equipment there, she concluded, was a way to help more people. ''Her generosity toward St. Luke's will benefit the Southcoast community for many generations and will touch thousands of lives for years to come," John Day, president and CEO of Southcoast Health System, which operates St. Luke's, said in a statement.

Mrs. Montgomery, one of the most generous philanthropists in Southeastern Massachusetts, died Feb. 20 in her South Dartmouth home of emphysema. She was 77.

When people wondered at her largesse, Mrs. Montgomery, whose father nicknamed her ''Topsy," would tell them that she had been a child of affluence and was taught ''to give back," said her daughter-in-law, Nancy Allatt of Greenwich, Conn. ''Topsy was a very private person and never looked for accolades."

In addition to St. Luke's Hospital, Mrs. Montgomery gave to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Southeastern Massachusetts University (now the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth), the Animal Rescue League, and the Dartmouth Natural Resources Trust.

Mrs. Montgomery was born in New York, the daughter of Alan G. and Gratia (Houghton) Rinehart. Her father was an editor and producer for Paramount Pictures. She was the great-great granddaughter of Amory Houghton Sr., the founder of Corning Inc., and the granddaughter of mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart.

She graduated from the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and spent summers vacationing with her family in South Dartmouth, exploring its beachfront and tidal pools and reading about the sea, her lifelong passion.

''Topsy's curiosity about all things related to the oceans appears to be inexhaustible," Robert Gagosian, president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said in 2001 when Mrs. Montgomery was recognized for her contributions.

Mrs. Montgomery was affiliated with the institution for four decades, starting out by funding young doctoral fellows studying there and building to a gift of $5 million in 2000 to establish the Rinehart Initiative for Access to the Sea.

In 1996, she gave the institution $5 million for coastal research; the institution dedicated its Coastal Research Center in her name. She also supported a program to create an underwater habitat for scientists.

In 1997, Mrs. Montgomery sailed on part of the maiden voyage of the institution's research vessel, Atlantis, only one of the many adventurous travels in her life. She was known for plunging her tall and lean frame and indomitable spirit into her every endeavor, whether it was diving from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or fishing in Woods Hole.

She hoped her philanthropy would challenge others to do the same, Allatt said. ''I love kick-starting a project and watching it take off," Mrs. Montgomery once said, according to the institution.

She had also supported the New Bedford Whaling Museum since 1972. Aware of the city's multicultural heritage, she was instrumental in starting the museum's Azorean collection, said its executive director, Anne Brengle. ''She was extraordinary in the sense that she had a keen idea of what had to be done to make things happen," Brengle said.

In July, Brengle said, Mrs. Montgomery ''surpassed even her own past generosity by making a pledge of $1 million to the museum."

The gift, Brengle said, will help provide more space for the museum's collections.

Mrs. Montgomery's interest in the environment extended to the Earth's ecology and the preservation of the land trusts and wildlife around her beloved South Dartmouth, where she moved permanently around 1956, said her son, Peter Allatt of Greenwich, Conn.

She had, by her son's account, ''a plethora of husbands, five in all." (It's a detail, he said, that Mrs. Montgomery -- with her irreverent sense of humor -- would have appreciated in her obituary.)

Her last husband, Gordon E. Montgomery, died in a plane crash in Virginia in 2000 after a 20-year marriage. A son, Stephen A. Laiser, died in a car crash in 1976.

''Topsy had this amazing life. There was a lot of joy but also a lot of pain," Nancy Allatt said. ''She looked at it as all part of her education."

In addition to her son, Mrs. Montgomery leaves three grandchildren, a step-granddaughter, and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. March 19 in Grace Episcopal Church in New Bedford.

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