By Jerry Wallace
The Gentrys reached the top of the pop music charts in 1965 with the memorable chorus, “Keep on dancin’ and a-prancin’.” But they have nothing on Hannah Gentry (no relation), the centenarian who for years has danced her way, figuratively and literally, into the hearts of her fellow McCready Manor residents and staff members at the Richmond assisted-living facility.
Despite a recent health setback, she’s approaching her Sept. 6 birthday the same way she marked her previous 100 celebrations: with a sunny disposition, positive attitude, generous spirit and maybe a dance step or two.
“If you’re going to live to be a hundred, that’s what you want to be like,” McCready Manor Activities Director Kelly Benton declared. “She’s the kindest woman we know, always thinking of others. You can’t find a single resident who doesn’t love Hannah.”
The retired schoolteacher and her late husband, Richard Lee Gentry, a former state education administrator and physical education professor, administrator and faculty regent at Eastern Kentucky University, were among the first residents of the parent St. Andrews Retirement Community when it opened in 1992. They moved from their condo to McCready in 2010, four years before Mr. Gentry passed away.
They met when both were students at what was then Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College. He noticed her for the first time when she was going up the steps of the Keen Johnson Building (then the student union) with her faded jeans and orange lipstick. They married while still enrolled in 1946 and lived for a time in Vet’s Village on campus. (Mr. Gentry had served in World War II, and Ms. Gentry spent her summers supporting the war effort by working in Cincinnati and Detroit factories.) Not long after their Smokies honeymoon in a 1939 Plymouth, they graduated together in 1948 and began their long and distinguished careers in education. In their spare time and throughout much of their retirement years, the Gentrys enjoyed their growing family (daughters Ellen Rini and Carol Williams, plus five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren) and church activities, golf and bridge, and EKU sporting events.
“I don’t ever remember Lee saying a cross word to me,” Ms. Gentry said of her husband of 68 years. “He was just that kind of person, the best person I’ve ever known.”
For a time, the couple taught together in a two-room school in her native Faubush in Pulaski County, Kentucky. Ms. Gentry went on to positions in Livingston, Marion, Lawrenceburg, Frankfort and Richmond, where she taught at Kit Carson Elementary for many years before retiring in 1975. At every stop, she endeared herself to students by nurturing personal relationships, often joining in even their recess activities. “I tried to treat them as individuals, whatever they needed. You teach students, not subjects.”
She knew her subject matter, too, of course. To this day, she can still recite the Preamble to the Constitution. But that’s not what impresses her McCready neighbors and staff the most. Ms. Gentry is beloved for her frequent acts of kindness, always trying to help and encourage others when they have difficulties or questions. Whenever the bingo numbers are called, musical performers visit or items are being swapped, you’ll find her in the middle of the action. She’s also known as the best joke-teller at McCready parties. “I get a kick out of all of us old people,” she chuckled.
She attributed her long and happy life to “healthy living.” For Ms. Gentry, that pretty much boils down to 10 axioms, aka “Granny’s Advice”:
1) When you wake up in the morning, think, “Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I will do something to make this a better world – maybe a smile, kind word, help someone, etc.”
2) With every privilege there is a responsibility.
3) Do the best you can in school, sports, work, play or whatever and be happy with the results. No problem if someone is better. Be humble if you are the better one.
4) Life is about making adjustments. Learn how to count your blessings and you’ll forget your disappointments.
5) Be an example of that which is good, not a follower of those who choose to be bad.
6) Be a friend to everyone, but choose your friends wisely.
7) Respect for others and good manners are appreciated by everyone. Practice these and you will be happier.
8) Always respect your parents in word and deed – remember, they love you.
9) If you make a mistake, accept the consequences.
10) Laughter is the best medicine. Smile!
Gil Shew, the long-time chief administrative officer at St. Andrews, has seen Ms. Gentry practice many times what she preaches. “Anytime you reach the century mark, you’re an inspiration to others,” he said. “She does it so gracefully.”
And that’s true, whether she’s inspiring her neighbors or staff with a poem or story, passing on a kind word or a piece of candy, or “dancin’ and a-prancin’.”