Local Obituaries

Wilma Gentry, 53, fixture in downtown Lexington, dies

People would sometimes cross the street to avoid Wilma Gentry.

She was unkempt. She sometimes talked to herself or cursed at passersby. But she also had a playful, even funny side.

Ms. Gentry, who for years was a fixture on the streets of downtown Lexington, died Saturday at Eastern State Hospital.

She had been in and out of the mental hospital a number of times and spent the last year of her life there, said Gayle Haynes, a businesswoman who had befriended her.

"They had her in a nice clean bed with a clean hospital gown on, and it was warm, and it was safe, and she had somebody sitting with her," Haynes said Monday.

"It was so much better than I had hoped for because I always worried she would end up dying out on the street, that they would find her frozen to death, so at least that prayer was answered."

Ms. Gentry, 53, had several medical problems and a long history of schizophrenia.

She was remembered Monday as a woman who made her way through life on the streets. But those who knew her said she also was a daughter, a sister, a mother and a friend.

Ms. Gentry grew up in the East End neighborhood of Lexington and graduated from Tates Creek High School in 1974, said Marty Gentry, one of her five siblings.

She made good grades but never was interested in athletics, he said.

After high school, she enrolled in Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, headed for a career in law enforcement.

Then, Marty Gentry said, "something happened."

"In a conversation I had with her, she said the pressure became too much, that she couldn't deal with it," he said.

Mental illness was diagnosed. She was given medicine to control it, but she sometimes didn't take her medicine. That would lead to disputes with family members, whom she eventually pushed away.

Ms. Gentry married and had three boys and a girl. They all have "turned out to be very nice adults," Marty Gentry said. They have fond memories of their mother, he said, and an understanding of her illness.

He said he had offered a number of times to become her legal guardian, but she always refused.

"It's so sad to watch and not be able to help," he said.

By 2006, she had become friends with Haynes, who is co-owner of Midtown Barbers on West Short Street.

When Ms. Gentry told Haynes that the woman who was handling her Supplemental Security Income check wasn't passing the money on to her, Haynes became the legal payee. Then she went to court to become Ms. Gentry's legal guardian.

With Haynes handling her money, Ms. Gentry's first stop most mornings was the barber shop.

Haynes would give her a little money for cigarettes and food and make her take a pill for her schizophrenia.

But there were problems. Ms. Gentry kept getting kicked out of apartments and boarding houses because her careless smoking caused fires. She also had a habit of throwing rags into toilets, stopping them up.

Haynes finally went back to court and asked that the state be awarded guardianship of her friend.

Ms. Gentry knew which restaurants would give her a bite to eat and which businesses would let her come in to warm up on a cold winter day, Haynes said.

But the people who knew her never knew what to expect.

"Some days I would say 'How are you?' and she would say 'Go to hell,'" said Ed Dove, a lawyer. "Some days, you would talk to her and she would be just fine."

One day, Dove passed her as he was coming out of the old Fayette District Court building. Because he had recently spoken to her, he planned to walk by without saying anything.

"I had a file in my hand," he said. "As I got about even with her, she goes 'Rarrrrr!' My papers flew all over the place. She thought it was the funniest thing she ever saw."

Funeral arrangements are pending at Fender Funeral Directors in Lexington.

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