Peninsula banker Gordon Gentry named 2013 Daily Press Citizen of the Year
February 15, 2014
Reported by: TidewaterBiz.com
Written by: Mike Holtzclaw
Gordon L. Gentry Jr. sits in his office at the TowneBank building on Old Oyster Point Road, and he shakes his head.
He appears genuinely humbled by the idea that he is being honored as the 2013 Daily Press Citizen of the Year, and he is trying to explain why.
"This community," he says, "has done far more for me than I could ever do for it."
Gentry, the 76-year-old chairman of TowneBank of the Peninsula, is being honored for more than a half-century of community involvement, much of it focused on education. He is chairman of An Achievable Dream, the Newport News-based school that has had much success providing educational opportunities and life skills to at-risk students. He sits on the board at Hampton University and at the Christopher Newport University business school, and he is also a board member of Smart Beginnings of the Virginia Peninsula, which focuses on children in pre-school.
His motivations for these endeavors is much the same as it was in 1996, when he founded Harbor Bank as the first new commercial bank to be established on the Peninsula in more than a quarter-century.
Quite simply, Gentry – a longtime Newport News resident - wanted to contribute to his community.
In 1995, he was chairman of the board of TideMark when that locally operated bank was acquired by Crestar (now SunTrust). He had planned to accept an offer to stay with Crestar, but friends within the Peninsula business community convinced him to start a new local bank. When he began selling shares in Harbor Bank, people lined up for three days to buy stock. A post office box established to accommodate requests to become shareholders overflowed. To this day, Gentry calls that response "the greatest satisfaction I have ever had professionally."
Running a locally owned bank, he says, puts a daily emphasis on community. The banker's clients are also his neighbors, and that fosters a sense of loyalty not only to the people but to the community as a whole.
Gentry cites many mentors and associates who have influenced his sense of civic duty, such as Lewis McMurran, Alan Diamonstein, Herb Bateman, and McKinley Price.
But when Walter Segaloff's name comes up, Gentry stops cold. Segaloff, the tireless community advocate who founded An Achievable Dream, was a constant friend and colleague until he died last fall. When asked about Segaloff, Gentry immediately chokes up, unable to speak for a full minute — until he is able to gather himself, get a sip of water and collect a photo of the two men together.
"Walter was one of my dearest friends," Gentry says. "There was just an understanding between us, not written down but just understood, that if one of us was involved in something then the other would be involved, too. He always thought big, and that was part of the fun of being with him. He was not limited by what someone else had done or by what would be easy to do."
It was Segaloff who urged Gentry in the late 1980s to set up the first meetings that would lead to the foundation of People to People, which strives to improve race relations on the Peninsula.
"We had a big group of business leaders and leaders in the black community," he recalls, "and we just said: 'Let's not have problems. Let's talk to each other. We have common goals.' I'm proud to be a part of an organization that was built on that strong foundation."
Gentry was born in Goochland, but his family moved to Newport News while he was in high school. He reluctantly left his friends behind and spent his senior year at Warwick High School. The Peninsula has been his home ever since.
When he speaks of his pride in this community, the conversation almost always comes back around to education.
"We've got such great and respected institutions here in William and Mary and Hampton," he says, "as well as one of the most up-and-coming universities in the country in Christopher Newport. We have the absolute model of a trade school in The Apprentice School, as well as something like An Achievable Dream.
"If we could keep developing these opportunities, we could be on the map as the place where people would want to live and work. If we could make this community 'the education community,' it wouldn't just help our own kids — it would make people want to come here to live and to work."
That remains his goal for the Peninsula as he looks toward the future.
"I'm fortunate to be in reasonably good health, and I don't feel my age," Gentry says. "I want to continue to help this community improve. I think we all have a civic duty to try to make a difference."