The Way We Were: Carolyn Smith Gentry

The Way We Were: Carolyn Smith Gentry
Conrad, Carolyn, Chuck, Mary and Meredith with Persian cat, Mary Ann Sue
Carolyn and Conrad Gentry

Carolyn and Conrad Gentry

Carolyn Gentry cares deeply about the memories she’s made with her family and friends.  She treasures the rich history of her ancestry in the Jacksonville neighborhood on the St. Johns River where she was born and raised. Inspired by diaries, journals and “jottings” of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Carolyn has chronicled the large and small moments of her life for future generations in a book for family entitled “Mile Stones – Jottings of My Family History … Diaries and Journals Tell a Story.”

With the exception of going away to the University of Florida and living for short stretches in Virginia, Carolyn has always lived on the same land that her great-grandfather, Samuel L. Hopping, bought in the late 1800s. 

“In 1923, my grandfather donated the land that is now my street address – San Jose Boulevard West – to Duval County,” she writes, adding that “San Jose has historical significance because of its Spanish roots and the historically important structures built during the 1920s land boom. Names like Alcazar, Segovia and San Pedro remind us that San Jose traces its heritage to the vast property holdings of Francisco Xavier Sanchez, one of the richest men in east Florida who remained behind when Spain ceded the Florida province to Great Britain.” 

If the foregoing quote appears to be particularly precise and informative, it was written by a former educator who taught English and journalism for 15 years. Carolyn graduated from the University of Florida, earned her master’s degree from Jacksonville University, joined The Florida Times-Union in 1975 as educational services coordinator and had risen to Public Affairs Director by the time she retired in 2007. As a consultant for the next nine years, she co-managed several of the Times-Union’s community events, including the prestigious EVE Awards that celebrate the accomplishments of women; High School Journalism Awards, and Regional Spelling Bee Championship.

Carolyn, one of four daughters born to Emma and Horace Smith at St. Vincent’s Hospital (all delivered by Dr. Ernest W. Veal), met Conrad Gentry when they were students at the University of Florida. They were married on August 5, 1960 at Southside United Methodist Church. Their son, Chuck, was born on February 25, 1962 and their twin daughters, Mary and Meredith, were born on January 6, 1967. 

Carolyn’s twin daughter, Mary, a model who died in 2014 of liver disease

Carolyn’s twin daughter, Mary, a model who died in 2014 of liver disease

A widow since Conrad died on January 8, 1993, Carolyn, sadly, lost her daughter, Mary, to end stage liver disease on December 1, 2014. Memorable details of births, weddings and deaths … and the people involved in each occurrence … are tenderly written in Carolyn’s “jottings.” 

For instance, one Thanksgiving, her late daughter, Mary, sent 52 little scrolls expressing her gratitude to Carolyn as her mother. Carolyn opened one scroll a week for the next year.

While she was inspired by the memoirs of Buck Fannin (“Growing Up Buck”) and Ann Hyman (“Chaos Clear as Glass”), Carolyn credits her mother’s diaries as the main catalyst for writing her own memoir. 

“Emma Frances Hopping Smith Strickland [Mama] kept diaries beginning in 1972 almost up until her death in 1998 … I read Mama’s words and with it the pain and pleasure of living,” said Carolyn. “She recorded what time she arose, how she felt, where she went, what she cooked for family dinners, what kind of fish she pulled from the river, where she bought her thread for crocheting, who sent letters, who died, who came to visit, what she planted, what she canned and what she wanted to remember.”

Carolyn still lives in the house built by her late husband and designed by his friend, architect Sidney Chesnutt, back in 1964. The house, located on a parcel of land given to them by Carolyn’s parents, has stood the test of time, having survived every hurricane from Dora to Irma, despite its close proximity to the St. Johns River. 

Within days of moving into their brand-new home with its “contemporary” glass wall, just 200 feet from where she grew up, Hurricane Dora hit Jacksonville. Carolyn remembers that only one of the TV meteorologists, George Winterling at Channel 4, predicted the ferocity of the storm, but they were “somewhat prepared.” 

“We filled the bathtub with water and bought lots of Spam, tuna, cereal and canned milk … Barbara and Bill Wheeler spent the first night with us. It turned into a frat house party with candles dripping on the Oriental rug while we watched the pine trees bend almost double from the force of the wind,” she wrote. “By morning, all the reserve water was used up from flushing the commodes throughout the night, water had risen almost up to the deck, trees were down and schools were closed … the glass wall was spared.”

Carolyn Gentry at home, 1989

Carolyn Gentry at home, 1989

Like her home, Carolyn Gentry has valiantly stood the test of time, approaching each new day with optimistic anticipation and a strong resolve to make a positive difference. That strength and determination, along with her intelligent and energetic participation in many of the events that have shaped the history of Jacksonville and the world, have garnered her countless awards and accolades over the past five decades. To name just a few, in 1980, she received a Tribute to Women in Industry (TWIN) award; and in 1985, she was honored by the Jacksonville Section National Council of Jewish Women. She was presented Florida Public Relation Association’s community service award in 1994 and was a National Philanthropy Day Honoree in 1995. River City Business and Professional Women’s Club saluted her as an outstanding woman in journalism during National Business Women’s Week, 1996. She was recognized as a “Woman of Distinction” by Gateway Girl Scouts Council in 1997. The National Council of Negro Women, Inc. named her “Woman of the Year 1997 for sustained productive service,” and The Women’s Center honored her as an Unsung Shero on its 20th anniversary in 2015. 

A former member of South Jacksonville Rotary and a Leadership Jacksonville Alumni, class of 1979, Carolyn was president of the Jacksonville Women’s Network and has served on too many prominent cultural, health-related, educational, and charitable boards to list in the space of one article.

The daunting challenges and stellar accomplishments in the life of Carolyn Smith Gentry have been impressive, often extraordinary, and yet, today, she is first and foremost a sister, a mother and a grandmother who is determined to encourage others to cherish and record their legacy. 

For Carolyn, writing her memoir helped bring her highest priorities and values back in line. Those are: her sense of place, her family traditions, and her heritage.   

“As the grandmother of Julide and Derin, two incredibly wonderful and talented young people, my mission is to convey to them the importance and power of the written word, and how eternally grateful I am that our ancestors made the time to keep diaries and journals of their daily lives,” she said. “By leaving us this precious legacy, their history is preserved and they remain alive in our hearts and minds forever.”


By Susan D. Brandenburg
Resident Community News

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