Auburn University is home to over 27,000 students, the vast majority of whom are between the ages of 18 and 22. College is most often a launch pad for young innovators and earnest hard workers. It is a place to get a piece of paper that will open future doors. But for one Auburn student, it is a place to fulfill a lifelong dream—a dream to graduate.
Tommy Gentry, age 75, is a senior studying mechanical engineering at Auburn University. He started at Auburn for the first time in 1960 after graduating from the only high school in his hometown of Phenix City, Alabama. Unfortunately, Gentry failed out of Auburn after two years.
The one bright side to Gentry’s unfortunate situation was that his childhood sweetheart, Dyane, was still waiting for him in Phenix City. Gentry moved home, married the girl next door that he had grown up with and dated since he was in ninth grade and started working in his father’s machine shop.
“It just plagued me all my life that I didn’t get a degree because I flunked out,” said Gentry. “I made several attempts and the last time I attempted to go back was in 1989. I was doing fairly well then my dad got sick and died, so I flunked out again. I thought that was it, I wouldn’t try again.”
Gentry resigned himself to mastering his craft in his shop. He and Dyane had children and then grandchildren. He watched as his son-in-law, niece and nephew rose up in the shop to run all of the daily operations. He saw his family-owned business grow to provide over 50 jobs in the community of Phenix City. But with all of his success, there was one thing that he knew he still needed to do and only one place to do it.
“It was Dyane’s idea for me to come back to Auburn,” said Gentry. “I told her I was thinking about taking some online courses and she said, ‘Why don’t you see if you can just go back to Auburn?’ So I listened to her, emailed the school and got a response in an hour. Dr. John Raines responding, ‘Come on over and let’s talk about it.’ He checked out my transcript and got me re-entered and re-registered. I went to Chattahoochee Valley to take history, art appreciation and other core classes, and I started back to Auburn in the fall of 2014.”(photo: Tommy and Dyane at an Auburn football game, used with permission)
Gentry, a die-hard Auburn football fan with season tickets, plans on finally graduating from the school he loves in August 2018 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Most of his classmates will learn out of textbooks in classes first and then in the practical world after graduation, but Gentry has done the opposite.
“I don’t ever go to class without having read the assignment or without having done the homework,” said Gentry. “But I find that the textbooks are very difficult to follow and you could be self-taught. Too deep into theory and not into the practical. It would help some of these professors if they had worked in the industry which they teach.”
Though he doesn’t always agree with the way things are done in a classroom, Gentry has nothing but respect for his professors.
“It’s discriminating in the best way,” said Gentry. “They bend over backward to be nice to me. The professors have been very nice. I went over to Subway for lunch and I saw my professor Dr. Burch sitting by himself and asked if I could sit with them and he said, ‘Sure.’ And then my other professor Dr. Regan came in and sat down. So I had lunch with two of my professors one day. I’m always talking to them about the issues I’m facing that relate to the courses that they’re teaching.”
In addition to the help he receives from his teachers, Gentry has developed a close friendship with some of his classmates.
“I have about five people that I’m in a lot of the same classes with and have gotten close to,” said Gentry. “I’ve had some of them over to my house for a barbeque. They help me out a lot with homework and with preparing for exams. I say a lot of funny stuff that doesn’t make sense, but I also give them advice along the way.”
Gentry’s all-Auburn family includes three grandchildren who all attended or currently attend Auburn at the same time as their grandfather. He enjoys taking them out to lunch on campus and has set an excellent example for them to never, ever give up.
“Once in 1976, Georgia Tech was playing Notre Dame in Atlanta,” said Gentry. “Georgia Tech was losing really bad. The cameras went back into the Georgia Tech locker room at half-time to hear what Coach Pepper Rodgers had to say to his team. He said, ‘Boys, it’s alright to win and it’s alright to lose, but it’s never okay to give up.’”(photo: Tommy and Dyane, used with permission)
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