ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
There have been many times in his life that Monty Root has found he’s not in Kansas anymore.
But in the end, it seems the mayor of Lehigh has realized there’s just no place like home.
“I’ve been everywhere, but I still always come back to Kansas when I’m done,” Root said. “This is home.”
Born in Garden City and schooled in Concordia, Root began moving around the Midwest at a young age as the son of a farmland manager.
“Typically I’ve moved every two to three years for my whole life,” he said.
And as an aircraft inspector with Raytheon Aircraft Services and a licensed pilot with two air-planes now docked at the Hillsboro airport, Root has traveled far and wide for business and pleasure.
From Las Vegas to Germany to the Marshall Islands where he met Marisa, his wife of five years, Root has “been all over,” he said.
But when he and Marisa moved to Lehigh three years ago with daughter Jessica, they found a small, friendly community where they could put down roots, he said.
And now that the 41-year-old has finally settled down in a place he can call home, he enjoys using his skills in home improvement not just at their house in Lehigh and on their 10-acre property south of town, but also in the community at large as its new mayor.
Root said his stint in city government began two years ago when Ron Duerksen, then the mayor of Lehigh, approached him about serving on city council.
“I guess I was conscripted,” Root said. “But in a small community, you have to do those things if you want a nice place to live.”
After becoming director of parks and recreation last fall, Root said he moved into the role of mayor “by default” when Duerksen concluded his mayoral career in April.
Already, Root has seen that his years of managerial work at Raytheon and Kansas State University prepared him well to be mayor.
“I’ve got a wide range of management experience,” he said. “It’s about trying to coordinate people and issues-having a vision of what it is and what it should be.”
This kind of leadership role is not what Root-or his family-ever expected him to do with his life.
“I was never a real people person,” Root said. “I just wanted to do my thing and go home.”
But his desire to see improvement and his ability to guide people in that direction has moved Root naturally into supervisory positions, he said.
“I shocked my family when I started teaching college,” Root said of his work in the KSU aviation department in Salina, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in aviation technology.
Root said his current contract work-surveillance of commercial operators for Raytheon-continues to develop his interpersonal skills.
“My job is to go out and meet customers, and sometimes they’re happy, and sometimes they’re mad,” he said. “I can integrate and we get along fine, but it’s not the natural thing.”
Unlike his outgoing wife, who thrives in her position as owner of Little Pleasures coffeehouse and bakery in Hillsboro, Root said he would still sometimes prefer to withdraw to solitude.
“There’s some days I would rather just hide from folks and just ride my tractor or mow grass,” he said. “That reenergizes me.”
But being mayor allows him a manageable combination of working alone and with others, he said.
“I can do the people part of it, but management and trying to do things are probably more my forte,” he said.
Right now Root’s efforts as mayor are focused on obtaining grants and making plans to improve the city’s water and sewer systems.
Such improvement is needed, he said, to “offer a better service and possibly sustain some growth in the future,” as well as to “reduce the ISO ratings for homeowners insurance and fire insurance.”
Not to mention that an improved water system is necessary for public safety, Root said.
“When you live in a town with a restricted water supply, if you have a fire, you might not be able to put it out,” he said.
Projects like this one go hand-in-hand with the goal of economic development that has Root traveling regularly to Wichita to visit with representatives from the Kansas Department of Commerce and the South Central Kansas Economic Development District on how to better bring-and keep-businesses in the area.
“It seems to me that instead of outsourcing to the rest of the world, we could keep our jobs here better than what we have,” he said.
But as much as he enjoys traveling with his work for Raytheon and for the city of Lehigh, Root is glad when his service of the community keeps him in town doing the outdoor work he loves so much.
“I enjoy the parks and rec thing-keeping a nice park, something for the kids and people to go to,” Root said.
He especially likes spiffing up the parks and grounds for annual community get-togethers like the Memorial Day weekend engine show or the Fourth of July fireworks celebration.
“It’s kind of a little block party, Lehigh style,” he said.
Seeing the community come together, whether for work or play, is what Root said he loves most about small-town life.
“The charm of living in this kind of place (is) that there’s no reason why we can’t all get together,” he said. “That’s the cool thing about living in Lehigh-neighbors will help each other.”
Living in rural Kansas also gives Root space to spread out and do all the “guy things” he enjoys so much: working in the yard, riding his motorcycle or flying either his “relaxing” 1948 PA-17 Vagabond and “exciting” Midget Mustang.
“If you can think about any guy thing, I like to do it,” he said. “I’m just a boy that’s never grown up-doing what I want to do, just with bigger stuff.”
Root has even tried his hand at aerial photography, he said, taking a digital camera with him on his frequent rides in the skies.
“On Saturday morning I can take my little putt-putt airplane and go cruising-make sure there’s water in the lake, look at the cows, see who’s mowing hay,” he said. “Life is good.”
Back on the ground, Root said he just likes to make things better for himself and for those around him, whether it’s in his own backyard or that of his neighbor.
“It’s just fun to build things and see things grow,” he said.