An American Life

American Artisans, People
on June 10, 2007

A smile breaks across the face of Jimmy Gentry, 81, as he stands before a sea of young faces at Bethesda Elementary School in Thompson’s Station, Tenn. (pop. 1,283). The captivated fifth-graders listen intently as Gentry shares his amazing story, or as he says, “the life of his generation.”

“I want you to close your eyes and imagine a time long ago,” Gentry begins. “I want to tell you a story about a little boy.” Like he’s done more than 100 times over the last 20 years for audiences around the nation, Gentry takes listeners back to the “simple, but wonderful times” of his childhood, when he would climb trees, swim in the Harpeth River, and catch squirrels and fish with his bare hands to help survive during the Great Depression.

“We didn’t have anything,” he says of his years growing up in Franklin, Tenn. (pop. 41,842). “But nobody else had anything, so we didn’t know any better. We had the best time in the whole world. And the reason I had such a good time was because of my momma. She would tell us, ‘You may not have the best clothes in the world, but you’ll have the cleanest.’”

Gentry was 12 when his father died, leaving his mother to raise nine children. “She gathered us kids around his coffin and said, ‘What you’ve left me with is worth more than all the gold in the world.’”

Gentry lived through significant times in American history: “I remember being at a drug store on Dec. 7, 1941. I was 16 years old and hanging out with a group of teenagers. Somebody said, ‘Be quiet and turn up the radio.’ There, for the first time, we heard that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. When we heard that, we put our unfinished Cokes down and walked out of the drugstore without saying a word.”

Students’ eyes widen as he describes his life as a 19-year-old foot soldier during World War II. “You’d walk all night, then you’d go to sleep walking,” he tells them. “You’d fall down and wake yourself up and keep on walking. Then you’d walk all day and all night again. The next day we reached the city of Wurzburg, Germany. That’s where the Germans were waiting for us.”

Near the end of his conversation with the students, Gentry pauses. “There are some things in here that are difficult to talk about, so I might cry,” he says, closing his eyes as he describes the events of April 29, 1945, the day he and fellow soldiers liberated Germany’s Dachau concentration camp.

“I remember seeing these faces,” he says of the camp’s survivors. “They’re staring out at me. They appeared to be dead.” Gentry is careful to not upset his young audience, but offers enough description so they understand the atrocities he witnessed.

Gentry’s story brings the textbook to life, says social studies teacher Melanie Dickson, 38. “I didn’t realize what a powerful impact he would have on us all,” she says. “History comes alive as the students realize that there are people who actually lived through these events. Several students said that they had a vivid image in their head of what life was like during the Great Depression and the trials faced during World War II.”

At the conclusion of his talk, Gentry fields questions from his young audience. “I have a question,” says a little girl in the corner. “Was the squirrel tasty?” Gentry laughs and replies, “If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat a stick.”

You’ve got to tell your story
For 40 years after serving the nation in World War II, Gentry kept his war stories to himself: They were much too painful to retell. Instead, he focused on his career as a high school teacher and football coach, and on building a family with his wife and high school sweetheart, Rebecca—“the only girl I ever kissed.”

But in 1985, he received a call from a concentration camp survivor, asking if he would speak about what happened at Dachau. “I couldn’t do it,” Gentry recalls. “But the man asked if he could just meet me and shake my hand.”

The two met, and again the man asked if Gentry would share his story. “He said to me, ‘When you die, nobody will ever know anything about what happened.’” In 1986, Gentry worked up the courage to speak to a group of students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Since then, he has been asked to tell his story to civic groups, church congregations and schools in Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, among others. He speaks because, “my conscience tells me that I should do it,” he says.

However, Gentry doesn’t just tell the story of his experience liberating Dachau. Instead, he tells the “story of an American life.” He often dedicates his talks to small towns, and spends much of his time reminiscing about his childhood.

Recalling an American life
“Everybody knew everybody else growing up,” Gentry says. “I remember the telephone numbers growing up were 1, 2, 3, 4. One time I called the operator, Lillian, and said, ‘Lillian, give me number 79.’ She said, ‘Jimmy, they’re not at home. They’ve gone to the grocery.’ She knew my voice, and she knew where they were. Everybody knew everybody.”

His stories often are met with amazement from his audience, as evidenced by the thousands of letters he’s received over the years. Katie Horton, a fifth-grader at Bethesda Elementary, wrote to Gentry: “I can’t wait to share your stories with friends and family. I think they will also be very interested and proud of all the things you have been through. You are a great speaker. I would love to hear more of your stories.”

Responses from students and friends prompted Gentry to write and publish his autobiography, titled An American Life, in 2002, which is dedicated to his wife, who died last year.

Sharon Kinser, 39, who has known Gentry since she was a kid, was thrilled when he wrote his autobiography. “It gives someone a glimpse into a life that is long gone, but has much to be desired,” she says. “And to know that you can read that and go talk to the person. It’s a real gift. He’s such a special man. He’s an American hero.”

Bringing simple times to life
Gentry does more than speak and write about the simple American life of his childhood; he helps kids re-create those times on his 400-acre Gentry’s Farm, which also is home to his three sons and five grandchildren. During harvest season the farm is open to groups who enjoy fall hayrides and picking pumpkins.

Each June for more than 30 years, Gentry’s Farm has been transformed into a summer camp for kids. “We pitch horseshoes, feed the chickens, we have a rope swing in the tree, play in the river and we tell stories,” Gentry says. “Just simple things and we do it without computers or television.”

Kinser attended the camp as a middle-school student and worked as a camp counselor during high school. “I had so much fun there,” she recalls. “We played checkers, horseshoes, and a highlight was capture the flag. We’d camp out by the river and tell ghost stories.”

This summer, her 8-year-old son, Wade, will attend his third year at the camp. “When he was born, I basically said, ‘You will be going to Gentry’s camp when you get old enough.’ He loves it.”

Gentry finds great joy in sharing the life he remembers, whether at his camp or in front of a classroom full of students. “My story could be someone else’s story in another part of America,” Gentry says. “It is an American life, and there aren’t too many of us left now to tell our story. I think it’s important to share it.”