Lt. Mark Gentry was barely old enough to drive a car when a favorite uncle introduced him to a group of volunteer firefighters in his hometown of Shady Valley, Tennessee, and encouraged him to begin the basic training required for a volunteer position. While looking back earlier this month – just days before his retirement from the Bristol, Tennessee Fire Department became official - he noted that his uncle has since passed away, but he has gained a “second family” to celebrate the accomplishments of a firefighting career that has spanned more than four decades.
“You form friendships that you’ll have for a long time – probably forever,” he said. “Even though you have your own family, the department becomes your second family. You work together, you live together, and you form a bond with everyone.”
He began volunteering with the Shady Valley department at the age of 16 and, after graduating from Johnson County High School, began building homes, then cabinets and furniture. That eventually led to a career in the logging industry, where he did everything from cut trees to haul timber. He was working as a truck driver and had racked up an estimated two million miles - all while still spending his off-duty time as a volunteer firefighter – before he decided to make a career switch.
The BTFD hired him in October 2003.
His first stop was “rookie” school, which is required for all new hires, and then he was welcomed into the department. The experience he gained as a volunteer firefighter helped him ease into his new role and, thanks to the years he spent driving tractor-trailers, he quickly adapted to working odd hours and sleeping when time allowed. His relatives grew accustomed over the years to celebrating holidays a day early or a day late, too, to accommodate his work schedule.
Asked what has been most rewarding about the 17+ years he’s been with the department, Lt. Gentry struggled to find the right words.
“Helping people,” he said. “You never know what call you’re going to have to run, who you are going to meet, and who you are going to be able to help. It’s something different every day.”
City policy requires firefighters to retire when they reach the age of 60, so Lt. Gentry has long known his time with the department would come to an end this month. He celebrated his 60th birthday on Jan. 21 and, eight days later, thanks to careful planning, his retirement became official.
So what’s next? There will be time for hunting, fishing, motorcycle riding and other hobbies that he hasn’t found much time for in recent years. He plans to keep his certification as an Advanced Emergency Medical Technician current, so continued training will be required. And, although he doesn’t advertise, he’ll stay busy with a side gig he started some years ago – Gentry Custom Cabinets.
It turns out that the same uncle who introduced him to firefighting was also an accomplished carpenter. It turns out that it runs in the family.
Over the years, Lt. Gentry has helped remodel kitchens all over the region and built specialty pieces like entertainment centers, bathroom vanities, and infant safety gates. He even built a rocking horse and a cradle for the grandchildren of friends and family members and has designed custom pieces for several within the department. The cabinets in the City’s Central Fire Station and the dining table that has become a favorite gathering place for firefighters at Station 5 are also his handiwork.
“I’ve never advertised,” he said. “People just find out by word of mouth. They tell me what they want, and we figure it out together.”
He looks forward in retirement to spending more time in his workshop and, when time allows, to returning to the fire hall for a visit. He’ll sit around the table he built and enjoy a cup of coffee – probably share some old stories, too – with old friends and those who are new to the department. Yes, he will miss the job, he said, but admitted that the stress and physical demands of the job can take a toll after a number of years.
“It’s time to go and hand the reigns over to someone else,” he said. “Some of the younger guys have told me that they’ve learned a lot from me. Of course, I learned from the older firefighters who were here when I started, so that’s the way it should be.’’