BIG HORN — Johnnie Gentry has lived on his own for nearly a quarter-century. After Nancy, his wife of more than 40 years, died from cancer in May 1994, Gentry has been the sole inhabitant of his home in Big Horn.
“It was hard for a long time,” Gentry said. “I miss her.”
Despite the heartbreak that accompanies the loss of a spouse and a few health challenges, the 96-year-old Gentry remains mostly independent. He can still live on his own due in part to help during the past four years from the Sheridan Veteran Affairs Health Care System and The Hub on Smith.
That assistance involves weekly visits from employees at The Hub on Smith and a few items paid for by the VA to make Gentry’s life easier. Those include a cane, walker, showerhead, bed railing and headphones to help Gentry watch the news and TV shows like “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.”
The services also freed up time for Gentry’s son and daughter-in law, Kim and Roseanne Gentry, who live next door.
Roseanne Gentry said the program has enabled her father-in-law to have a healthy modicum of self-sufficiency. It also allowed her to return to work full-time at a local nursing home.
“We check on him as much as we can, but we’re very lucky that he is pretty independent,” Roseanne Gentry said.
Johnnie Gentry grew up on a ranch in New Mexico and began working full-time after eighth grade. At age 19, he was drafted into the Navy during World War II. Gentry mostly worked on airplanes aboard a cargo ship in the Pacific Theater.
Gentry laughed at the memory of a subpar Christmas meal one year. The Navy members had been traveling for three days to reach land and needed to ration food, so the men looked forward to a holiday feast upon arrival. Instead, they received sauerkraut and Wheaties.
Gentry viewed his two-plus years in the Navy like a regular job. Upon his discharge from the military, Gentry worked as a cowboy and rancher. He came to Wyoming for the first time in 1947 and met his wife at a dance near Parkman while working for the Gill Cattle Company.
The family moved to a ranch near Lodge Grass, Montana, in the mid-1950s. During harsh winters, Johnnie Gentry often looked over the ranch by himself while the family stayed at an apartment in town.
“We never knew when we’d see him,” Kim Gentry said. “It was pretty tough.”
Indeed, it proved to be a precarious situation at times. During a particularly bad blizzard, Johnnie Gentry’s truck became stuck in a snowdrift six miles from the ranch. He barely made it back to his home after walking through waist-high snow for several hours.
He moved to Big Horn in 1990, and Kim and Roseanne Gentry moved next door two years later. These days, Johnnie Gentry usually makes his own breakfast of oatmeal or Cream of Wheat, while family members provide lunch and supper.
He occupies some of his time playing Solitaire. With the weather warming up, Gentry also enjoys sitting on his porch and taking in the view of the Bighorn Mountains while watching turkeys and whitetail deer in his yard and nearby fields.
Gentry has overcome a heart attack and stroke during his life. His hearing has worsened over the years, and he has shingles that cause him pain, but Gentry appears to have decent health overall.
Gentry joked that the secret to long life involved hard work and eating a lot of green peppers, one of his favorite foods.
As a World War II veteran, Gentry’s medical services are paid for by the VA. Diane Bear, a caregiver at The Hub on Smith, visits every Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. Another Hub on Smith employee stops by every Monday for two hours to chat and play cards. In addition to the weekly visits, a nurse from the VA home-based primary care program sees Gentry every month and a physician’s assistant checks in every six months. An occupational therapist, physical therapist and dietician visit occasionally as well.
Bear said the family takes good care of Gentry and that she fills in a few different areas where needed. Bear has worked at The Hub for about four years and helped Gentry for a little more than three years. She handles household duties like vacuuming, sweeping, laundry, dropping off groceries and cleaning bedrooms and bathrooms.
Bear usually visits four or five clients per day in Sheridan and Big Horn. She said forming relationships with them is the best part of her job, though she noted that it can take some time for her and the homeowner to adjust to one another’s presence.
Bear enjoys talking about the news and joking around with Gentry, and he appreciates having regular company.
Gentry has led a challenging, adventurous life in his more than nine decades, and the local programs help ensure he can live out his later years to the best of his abilities.