By Special to the Daily Journal
What happens when an inexperienced Mississippi reporter is plunked down in a small Caribbean nation and appointed editor and publisher of the only newspaper in the country? Chaos, followed by redemption – sort of.
This happened to Tupelo native Dick Gentry in the early 1970s at a time when the Caribbean was in the middle of great sociological and economic changes.
When Gentry landed in George Town, Grand Cayman, to begin his publishing career, the company’s managing director, Dr. Roy McTaggert, told him, “Cayman is becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing tax havens for offshore banking,”
Gentry looked back at him blankly: “The what?”
Gentry made few friends in his first months in the islands as he learned to cope with what would have been minor problems in his port of demarcation, Port Arthur, Texas, where he had been bureau chief for The Beaumont Enterprise-Journal. After only a few weeks as boss in George Town, Gentry experienced a surprise labor strike. When he asked his board of directors for advice, he got this: “It’s your problem.”
The British Colonial government and the governor did not warmly welcome the young American. They would have preferred a proper Englishman. Still struggling a year later, half of Gentry’s 20-member staff quit suddenly to join a new competing newspaper, started by the disgruntled man Gentry replaced, a native Caymanian. It would have been easy to flee home to friendly U.S. shores, but Gentry dug in his heels to fight the competition head-on. It became such a fierce rivalry that the British Governor stepped in to help the local competitor.
His Excellency Prince Charles, then a lieutenant on a visiting British warship, chided Gentry face to face during a reception at the governor’s home. He said Gentry was not giving the locally owned newspaper a chance, thereby creating a disservice to the country.
Gentry’s typical American reply, reinforced by several cocktails, limited his invitations to future government galas.
The final chapters of Gentry’s saga reflect a cautionary tale: Be careful what you say; be more careful whom you trust. Gentry’s book has not yet been welcomed in the islands. However, Olive Miller, now 88, the retired Government Information Officer who caused most of Gentry’s headaches in his three-year odyssey, recently read the book.
“Some parts of Dick’s book may show the British Government in a bad light, but it is something I think the Caymanians need to read. It covers much of our history, and it’s certainly a page-turner to read.” The Gentrys recently returned to The Cayman Islands to write the epilogue for the book.
One of the major personalities is Gentry’s book is Caymanian Mary Lawrence, one of Dick’s reporters in Cayman. “Mary couldn’t make up her mind whether she wanted to be a reporter or a politician,” he said. “I finally had to fire her.”
In May 2010, that same Mary was nominated to become Speaker of the Cayman Legislative Assembly. She was nominated by the Hon. McKeeva Bush, the Cayman United Democratic Party leader and soon-to-be Leader (Minister) of Government Business.
Gentry and his wife, the former Martha Jenkins, are both Tupelo High School graduates. Gentry received his B.S. from Eastern Washington University, and Martha Gentry received a BSN from Emory University, and an M.S. from Georgia State University.
Dick Gentry will sign copies of his book from noon until 1 p.m. Friday June 18 at Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo.