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MC Communication Department Dedicates Conference Room to Beloved Former Speech Professor

Reid Vance, associate professor and chair of communication at MC, said he is pleased that the department's refurbished conference room will honor Mary Catherine Gentry.
Reid Vance, associate professor and chair of communication at MC, said he is pleased that the department's refurbished conference room will honor Mary Catherine Gentry.

The Department of Communication at Mississippi College has dedicated a conference room in the Aven Fine Arts Building to one of the most cherished and respected faculty members in the department’s history.

A former communication student provided funds to renovate space on the southwest corner of Aven’s ground floor to honor Mary Catherine Gentry, a dedicated speech professor who served MC for 25 years. The gift ensures that Gentry’s legacy of steadfast faithfulness and brilliant instruction will be acknowledged in the heart of the department for generations to come.

She was so revered at MC that in 1994, she became the first faculty member without a terminal degree named Distinguished Professor of the Year.

Gentry accepted congratulations from former colleagues and students and entertained well-wishers for more than an hour during an April 11 reception that celebrated the conference room dedication.

“I was amazed at the number of people who attended,” said Gentry, who will turn 98 on Aug. 27. “I saw former students that I had not seen in years.”

Reid Vance, associate professor and chair of communication, told the roomful of admirers that the anonymous benefactor wanted to pay tribute to the faculty member who had provided exceptional instruction and invaluable guidance to communication students for a quarter of a century.

“This individual said, ‘I would like to honor somebody who has been very important to me,’” Vance said. “We want you to know, Mrs. Gentry, that your influence will last for many, many years, as it already has here at Mississippi College.

“We’re grateful to you, and we’re thankful to God for your influence on MC and our students.”

The Mary Catherine Gentry Conference Room once served as an office for its namesake, a fact noted on a plaque located to the left of the entrance to Room 107. It reads in part:

“Her legacy as a teacher, her tireless advocacy for students, and her abiding Christian influence alongside her husband, Charles, all inspire the department’s mission to prepare students to be successful communicators with their words, skills, and lives. With deep thankfulness to God for Mary Catherine Gentry’s long and generous contributions to Mississippi College, this room, which was once her office and in which student learning continues, is dedicated in her honor.”

Photos of Gentry adorn the walls of the refurbished space, as do pictures of Hollis and Julia Todd, known as the architects of the MC Speech Department; Billy Lytal, former chair of the Department of Communication; and the family of Dr. Cliff Fortenberry, professor of communication and former chair of the department. The renovations also feature a fresh coat of paint, brand-new carpeting and blinds, and state-of-the-art communication equipment.

“We were able to use the funding to provide a significant facelift to this room,” said Vance, who noted the space is primarily used for faculty meetings, classes, and departmental gatherings. “There are so many people who have been impacted, not just by Mrs. Gentry as a teacher at Mississippi College, but by her husband, Charles, who was the long-time pastor at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton.

“They are beloved in our community, and to have a space where we can honor her from here on is very appropriate.”

Hal Kitchings, pastor of Easthaven Baptist Church in Brookhaven and a former student of Gentry’s, agrees. As an undergraduate at MC, Kitchings took a pair of her speech classes and came away with one endearing memory – Gentry’s laugh.

“I left her class motivated to improve opportunities I might have in the future to speak before a group of people,” said Kitchings, who obtained his B.S. from MC in 1983. “She never met a stranger and treated all people the same. She has a genuine love for the Lord.”

He said Gentry is deserving of this special honor “because of the example she set for her students. Some things are taught. Most things are caught!”

A Memphis native, Gentry graduated from Hinds Community College. After working in Memphis for four years to pay for senior college, she enrolled at MC in 1949. Julia Todd became her mentor, and Gentry helped teach speech-impaired students at MC while obtaining her B.A. in communication in 1951.

“Mrs. Todd took an interest in me and encouraged me to go to the University of Southern Mississippi to take classes that would further my career – especially classes that were not taught at MC,” Gentry said. “She also encouraged me not to neglect my family.”

Gentry and her husband married on Aug. 23, 1950, and “many years went by between the time I got my B.A. and when I got my Master of Education in speech communication in 1969,” she said. During that academic hiatus, Charles graduated from Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, built a parsonage at Osborne Creek Baptist Church near Booneville, and became pastor of West Heights Baptist Church in Pontotoc before coming to Morrison Heights as pastor in 1964.

With Todd’s encouragement, Gentry began working on her master’s in 1965, shortly after the birth of the couple’s sixth child. She obtained her M.Ed. in speech communication from MC in 1969 and became a full-time faculty member that fall.

“I loved my 25 years at MC because I loved teaching speech,” she said. “In a small school, you teach a variety of speech classes, so you never get bored teaching the same course year after year. I enjoyed my students. Most showed eagerness to learn skills that would help them in their chosen careers.”

She became an exceptional instructor: in addition to being named MC’s Distinguished Professor of the Year, she was recognized as the Department of Communication’s Distinguished Alumna in 2008.

One of her greatest challenges as a faculty member was keeping up with evolving speech and communication skills.

“About every two years, they seemed to be in every new edition of our textbooks,” Gentry said. “Just as you learn them and become comfortable teaching them, a new concept was included. My greatest accomplishment is seeing former students using their communication skills to enhance their chosen careers.”

Despite the shifting currents of communication education, Gentry could always depend on support from home.

"Charles, my husband, was my cheerleader,” she said. “He influenced me to make the best of my time while we were here. Clinton was a wonderful town to raise a family.”

Five of the couple’s six children are MC graduates – the sixth attended MC but finished his degree at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Gentry’s demanding schedule often required her to make decisions between school, home, and church.

“I have been asked, ‘How have you taken care of your school responsibilities, your family duties, and your church obligations seemingly effortlessly?’” she said. “My answer: None are done effortlessly. All require much work. But I rely on my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Without Him, I could do nothing.”

She maintains contact with her alma mater by attending on-campus events and giving to the Department of Communication. Since her grandchildren live elsewhere, much of her retirement is spent on the computer, on the telephone, watching television, and attending church.

“I enjoy being at Morrison Heights,” she said, although “I am in the oldest ladies’ Sunday school class. I haven’t learned to say ‘Life Group’ yet.”