Finding Fon Gentry – My Morning on Maple Street with Joe Manning
By Britt Thompson
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
I get a lot of email…Much of it is spam; much of it is chain letters, promising health, wealth, Divine blessing, and happiness; and much of it comprises truly hilarious and sometimes risqué jokes. I thoroughly enjoy the jokes, especially the ones from my dear friend and Masonic brother, Barney Wright of Malakoff. However, through Internet genealogy research and postings on websites such as www.ancestry.com, I also get many wonderfully surprising emails from folks all over the country who share with me information on and photographs of their families and their connections to Malakoff or who want to know if I can help them find information on their Malakoff roots.
So, about two months ago when I saw an email in my inbox with the subject line, “I found your profile on ancestry – seeking more information” from a fellow named Joe Manning, I expected to find someone who was seeking more information about his ancestors who had at one time lived in or around Malakoff – what I found when I read the message was not what I had expected:
I am Joe Manning, an author and historian. I live in Massachusetts. I am looking for information about Florence Gentry, sister of Jefferson Decatur Gentry. I encountered an amazing newspaper article by Florence that she wrote for her school when she was ten years old. I featured it in a book of poems and old newspapers articles that I published last year. I have enclosed a link to the article, which I found on RootsWeb.com. After you access the Web page, scroll down till you see the article called “Dauphin School.” The writer is Fon Gentry, but I have verified that this is Florence, Fon apparently being a nickname. I was able to find on Ancestry.com that Florence (Fon) was a schoolteacher (listed in 1910 census), and that she died in 1919 (Texas death records). It would be wonderful if I could find a living descendant of the Gentry family who might be very interested in seeing the article that Fon wrote way back in 1901. Are you a direct descendant? Don’t forget to click on the link to the article.
If you want to know more about me and why I am searching for this information, see my website at www.morningsonmaplestreet.com. Make sure you see the link to my Lewis Hine Project, and the link to Old Newspaper Articles.
I was surprised, curious, and simply amazed at what a powerful research and communications tool the Internet really is. And I felt a bit inadequate to help him with his request. You see, I am related to Florence Smith “Fon” Gentry, but I did not know much about her, except that she was the sister of my great-grandmother, English Marvin (Gentry) Knotts on my mother’s side of the family.
Oh, I had heard my grandmother, Margaret (Knotts) Payne and my mother, Patsy (Payne) Thompson and various other family members mention her a few times over the years, but it struck me that I really knew so very little about Fon Gentry – I had certainly not read the newspaper article to which Joe referred. So, I re-read his message a couple of more times and then decided to see what Joe Manning was all about. What I found was a wonderful web site, www.morningsonmaplestreet.com, compiled by a serious scholar and historian, a website dedicated to baseball, to jazz, to poetry, and most of all, to forgotten people and places. I was humbled that he had contacted me…
And I was fascinated by what I read on the web site about Joe:
Joe Manning is a freelance journalist, poet, photographer, composer, lyricist and artist. His book, Steeples: Sketches of North Adams (Flatiron Press 1997), is in its third printing. It has been required reading for several courses at Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He followed that with Disappearing Into North Adams (Flatiron Press 2001). His most recent book is Gig At The Amtrak (Flatiron Press 2005), a collection of his poetry.
In June 2002, Manning contributed a lengthy essay about the social history of the River Street neighborhood in North Adams for Porches: Art and Renewal on River Street, a book edited by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. His poetry has been published frequently in The Berkshire Review. He has written many newspaper and magazine articles, ranging from travel essays to social commentary.
Manning created and is the advisor for several oral history programs in the North Adams public schools, for which he obtained a grant. Since 1998, he has helped plan and run Neighborhood EXPO, an all-day interactive celebration of North Adams neighborhoods and history sponsored by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. He is a frequent lecturer about North Adams history for Elder hostel programs at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
With collaborator Steve Vozzolo, he wrote and produced I Love Baseball, an album of new songs about the game. It is included in the collection of baseball music at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Their song about painter Norman Rockwell, “Norman Always Knew,” was recorded by Arlo Guthrie and performed by Mr. Guthrie at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Manning was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in southern Maryland. He served four years in the United States Air Force as a medical corpsman. In 1970, he received a BA in Sociology from the State University of New York College at Cortland. He was a caseworker for the Connecticut Department of Social Services from 1970, until his retirement in 1999. Manning and his wife live in Florence, Massachusetts.
I immediately sent Joe a reply, with my telephone number, and an assurance that I would give him all the information on Fon that I could find. He called several days later, and we had a great conversation – little did I know how important this project would come to be to me and how it would inspire my subsequent genealogy work.
I began digging in the material I have rather haphazardly compiled over the years on the Gentry family, and I discovered that I did have more information than I thought. My mother was a great help, reminding me of some of the family stories about Fon, such as the story that she graduated from Columbia University at an early age and the story my grandmother told about how Fon’s body was brought back to Malakoff on the train in the middle of the night from Waco after her death. I have census records; obituaries of her brothers, Dan and Dodge, and of her parents, William J. Gentry and Monterrey Indiana “Ann” Gentry from The Malakoff News; and I have a photograph of her childhood home, a cabin built by her father, which Joann Surls has painstakingly restored on her place south of Malakoff. There are two photos of Fon’s mother; photos of her brothers Dan and Dodge; and photos of her sister, my great-grandmother, English Marvin (Gentry) Knotts. And I also am very fortunate to have images of the birth, death, and marriage records from the Gentry family Bible, for which I am, indeed, thankful to my cousin, Tony Riddlesperger, who is also my close friend.
Through additional research on ancestry.com, I confirmed Fon’s death in McLennan County, Texas in January of 1919, which corresponded with what my mother remembered about how she died in Waco during the great influenza outbreak after World War I. And I now had the articles she wrote for The Athens Review in 1901 concerning Dauphin School, a place I had never heard of, but a place I found out about from The Handbook of Texas Online and some other references on various web sites. Thanks to www.smalltownpapers.com, I discovered a reference to Fon’s death in The Malakoff News, in a 1939 edition, which had excerpts about what was happening in Malakoff in January of 1919. Sadly, I don’t have the 1919 Malakoff News edition that probably had her full obituary.
There is no photograph of Fon that I know of, and there are no children or grandchildren I can contact for additional information, for you see, she never married. And everyone who would have had first-hand recollections of her is now gone.
I supplied Joe with the information I had, and we both agreed that, absent a photo of Fon, a photo of her tombstone would at least give his readers a visual reference point on her life. So I visited the Malakoff City Cemetery recently and took several pictures, which appear on Joe’s web site, along with the Dauphin School newspaper articles from 1901 and his poignant account of Fon’s life.
While I still feel inadequate about the material I supplied to him, I am so grateful to Joe Manning for taking notice of Fon Smith Gentry and ensuring that those who read about her will know something of her and her tragically short life. Through his eloquent prose, she will live on.
As for me, I will continue to try to find out more about Fon and others in my family. Who knows, some day I may get an email from someone who has pictures of Fon, or her letters, or her diary…I have learned many, many times in my genealogy research how the Internet can make that possible, and I have learned how wonderful it is to find a friend like Joe Manning, a friend with whom I hope to experience many more pleasant mornings on Maple Street.