So you’d be riding along in the car here in the hometown, and up ahead there’d be a distant silhouette on the shoulder of the road.
As you drew near you’d be struck by the emerging, familiar figure of the tall, erect man in fedora and Sunday suit, striding with long, loping steps while clutching a large Scofield Bible close to his breast.
Paul Gentry was headed to a church. Or maybe to downtown Elkin, maybe to preach at the bank corner. Or maybe to WIFM to try and get on the air on a Sunday afternoon.
For decades Brother Paul was a fixture on the streets and roads in and around Elkin. I’d argue that at one time he was the most widely recognizable figure in Elkin.
That’s because most everybody saw him, walking on the highways and byways. Paul didn’t drive, so he walked everywhere he went.
And boy did Paul walk. He’d go to every country church he could find, every revival meeting he’d hear about, including one at my home church when I was a kid. He was there every night.
And he’d come to every home that would open a door. One time in the early 1960s when I was little Paul took a spell of coming to our house. He’d come and ask for something to eat. I remember him hungrily chowing down on a hastily made sandwich at the kitchen table.
And he kept coming back, at lunch time. It got to bothering Mom, and she finally told him to not come anymore. She felt bad about it.
I never got up the nerve to ask just what exactly was the story of Paul Gentry. Why he was always walking the roads, why he was always showing up in churches. Why he was as he was. Someone told me one time that he stayed in a little trailer in Benham but I never learned more.
Brother Paul died Sept. 22 at the age of 91 at the Elkin nursing home where he spent his last years.
They’ll never be another character around these parts like Paul.
“No one has walked more miles or received more rides than Paul Gentry,” read his funeral-home obituary. “Paul was well loved in Wilkes and surrounding counties. He visited most of the churches in the area, either for revival or funeral services.”
I had forgotten about Paul when I returned to the hometown. But back in the summer I began seeing internet traffic with people asking about him. I was surprised to learn that he was still alive.
Decades after he walked along our roads, people were still talking, still asking, still wondering, still remembering Brother Paul.
I remember Paul as a rather shy man, with halting speech. They say that one time an adult Paul would walk to the old Austin primary school to try to learn to read so he could read his Bible.
“The memories of Paul Gentry will forever be etched in my mind,” Glenda Gambill Royall wrote on Paul’s obituary guestbook. “Paul was fed many a meal by the Gambill family. If our faithfulness to the house of God was as Paul’s, we would all be better servants. I count it a blessing to have known Paul Gentry.”
“I know you are walking the streets of gold now,” added Mitchell and Lisa Phillips. “He was a true blessing.”
There’re many funny and heart-warming stories affectionately told about and on Paul. Here’s mine.
A cousin told me this one. Paul took to coming to my grandfather’s house in Austin one time for Sunday dinner and staying the entire afternoon. Of course, after a number of Sundays he wore out his welcome.
So grandpa sneaked some flour into Paul’s upturned hat that he had left on a table. When Paul picked up his hat to leave he got dusted, head and shoulders. Without a word and without a pause Paul walked on out the door and never came back.
Paul won’t be coming back to us, either. And we are the poorer for it. But his brothers and sisters in Christ will be going to Paul, paying visits to his mansion some sweet day.
Wouldn’t it be grand if for a change Paul gave us all rides in his new, gold Cadillac?
I’m looking forward to it.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.
Back In The Hometown