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Merl Gentry’s tree memorialized at WMSP

By John Estridge, Editor

One of the most dedicated and influential person who ever inhabited the county was memorialized Monday afternoon, August 5, at the park he led and loved.

Pat Gentry, Merl Gentry's widow, led a program dedicating a red oak tree planted near the Whitewater Memorial State Park office in honor of Merl.

Merl was the park's manager for many decades. Merl died at the age of 88 nearly one year ago on Aug. 2, 2018.

At the dedication service, Union County resident Carl Sharp read a speech he wrote about the influence Merl had on his life.

“I first met Merl in the spring of 1975,” Sharp said. “He was already the property manager here at Whitewater Memorial State Park. I was just a kid looking for a summer job with a regular paycheck. It was good to get off the farm. My interview with Merl that day would be for my first real job that involved a regular paycheck and not one dependent upon the weather.

“I'm not sure what Merl saw in me that day, but he was willing to take a chance on me, and I landed my first real job in greatest of locations I could imagine right here in this park,” he continued.

Sharp worked in the boat rental concession, and he worked there for the next five summers.

“I was at the lake and getting paid to be there,” Sharp said. “It doesn't get much better than that.”

Merl and Sharp built a relationship that went beyond the employer/employee relationship, Sharp said.

“Merl was not just my boss, he was my mentor,” Sharp said. “He would tell me stories, and as I look back, these stories helped shape my character. He often told me of all the jobs he had, being property manager at Whitewater was his favorite and certainly the best job that he ever had.

“I'm sure he did this with all of his employees,” Sharp continued. “But he had a way of making me feel special and privileged as he would tell me stories and give me advice on how to do my job and deal with the public. Looking back, I'm sure he was trying to correct my mistakes, but it never felt like it at the time.

“Merl was a natural as a manager,” he continued. “He could correct an employee's behavior while making them feel like he was complimenting them, not many people have that ability.”

Sharp worked at the park for six summers with the last summer as a lifeguard at WMSP beach.

“I was really paid for being on vacation back then,” Sharp said. “As a lifeguard, I even spent my days off down at the beach as well as my workdays. Those were the days. In the (19)70s and 80s, there was no better place to be on a summer afternoon than the beach at Whitewater Memorial State Park. It was packed nearly every day.

“On weekends, cars were parked all the way back to where the camp store is now,” Sharp continued. “It was a big crowd. They were double parked and so forth. It was packed.

“During one of my conversations I had with Merl through the years, he told me the attendance and gate sales were second only to the Dunes State Park,” Sharp said.

Dunes is now a national park. It is in northern Indiana near Chicago.

“They have a pretty good population base to draw on,” Sharp said. “Keep in mind at that time, Brookville Lake and Whitewater were not combined. Whitewater was its own separate entity. To be second in the state was pretty impressive.

“I would have to say that the primary reason Whitewater was so well attended in those days had to do with Merl and his attention to the detail in making sure the park was a showcase and that it catered to the needs of the public,” Sharp continued. “It was absolutely the best run park in the Indiana State Park system due to his dedication. It was the best kept and best attended for its size. And certainly the most profitable park in the system at that time.

“Merl taught me a lot about dealing with the public and fellow employees during the six summers that I worked for him,” he said. “I would have to say much of what I learned from Merl would constitute the life lessons that have shaped much of my life.”

Sharp moved back to the area as an adult in 1992. Sharp hired Pat Gentry as his first employee.

“Merl worked at Whitewater Memorial State Park as its property manager for a little more than 30 years,” Sharp said. “During that time, he oversaw and directed numerous changes to the park as it developed from a little more than a few old farms set aside in memory of the veterans of World War I and II to one of the premier parks in the state.

“This park was also very special to Merl,” he continued. “He was a Marine. Merl always said once a Marine, always a Marine. And he always insisted we never lose the Memorial name to this park.”

Merl retired in 1994.

“However, he wasn't about to fade away into the sunset,” Sharp said. “He built his retirement home just outside of the park where he put in so much of his life.”

His legacy did not stop with his retirement, Sharp said. Merl was one of the founders of the Union County Parks and Recreation Board where he was a member for 22 years. He was also a Lions Club member for more than 18 years.

“Merl was a firm believer in giving back to his community,” Sharp said. “Today, we are giving back to the community in the form of this tree, which has been planted in Merl's memory. It is almost like Merl is standing here watching over the park.”

Pat said the tree's leaves will turn red in the fall, and she hopes as people enter the park in the fall, their eyes will go over to Merl's tree.

“I think this is a good memorial for him,” Pat said.

After the service, Pat invited everyone over to Merl and her home. She had baked several pies to share with those who attended.