Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Usco Alonzo Gentry (1888-1976)

From the Arkansas Insurance Department Annual Report, 2009.

   Continuing on our theme of oddly named political figures from Arkansas, state representative and senator Usco Alonzo Gentry can lay claim to being one of the more peculiarly named men to win election to the Arkansas legislature. A practicing attorney for over sixty years, Gentry later went on to further distinction when he served as Arkansas State Insurance Commissioner on two nonconsecutive occasions. Despite being a figure of distinction on the Arkansas political stage for over four decades, details on Gentry's life are murky at best, as are the origins of his unusual first name.
   Born on May 2, 1888 in Brownstown, Sevier County, Arkansas, Usco A. Gentry was one of two sons born to William David and Louise Deaubois Estes Gentry. Listed by most sources under the initials "U.A.", Gentry decided upon a career in law while a young man and later attended the University of Arkansas, earning his bachelor of laws degree from this school in the class of 1912. He had earlier married in Howard County Arkansas in April of 1906 to Lora A. Bittick (1885-1932), and over the course of their twenty-six-year marriage had three children, Thadie, Gray and Claude Leffel Gentry (1907-1988), who, like his father, became a distinguished lawyer and public servant, being a close adviser and confidant to Arkansas Governor Francis Cherry.
   Shortly after receiving his law degree Usco A. Gentry relocated to Hope, Arkansas where he established a law practice. Two years after beginning the practice of his profession Gentry made his first step into state politics, winning election to the Arkansas State House of Representatives in November 1914. Taking his seat at the beginning of the new year, the freshman legislator was one of two representatives from Hempstead County, and just a few weeks into his tenure was appointed to a special committee designed to "audit, investigate and examine the books, records and files of the several departments of state government", as well as "the University of the State, the four Agricultural High Schools, the State Normal, Branch State Normal, the Penitentiary and the State Medical School." 
   Usco A. Gentry was reelected to the Arkansas House in the November 1916 election and during his second term sat on the house committee on corporations. In 1917 he was talked of as a potential candidate for Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, vying for the position against Johnson County representative William Lee Cazort (later to serve as Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas.) Gentry later withdrew from the race for the speakership and following the conclusion of his term in 1919 returned to the practice of law, and during the 1920s served as an attorney for the Hope Municipal Plants as well as being a representative for the Arkansas Public Ownership League. Sources of the time also denote that Gentry served as a municipal judge for the city of Hope, his exact dates of service being unknown at this time.
  In November 1926 Gentry returned to political life when he was elected to the Arkansas state senate, serving two terms here (1927-1931.) During his second term, he served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole and two years after leaving office relocated to Little Rock to begin work as a legislative secretary to Junius Marion Futrell, who had been elected as Governor of Arkansas in November 1932. Gentry attained his highest political office under Futrell, when he was appointed as Arkansas State Insurance Commissioner during his administration and was confirmed by the senate in March of 1933.
From the Camden News, March 7, 1933.

    Gentry's time as insurance commissioner was not without controversy, however. Newspaper reports of the time note that he had been appointed by Governor Futrell to serve a six-year term as commissioner, which meant that his term would have expired in 1939. However, his term did not last the full six years due to Futrell being defeated for reelection in 1936. Governor Futrell's successor, Carl Edward Bailey, sought out the Arkansas legislature to abolish the post of Insurance Commissioner, and a short while afterward both houses of the legislature voted to do just that. Refusing to resign, Gentry was later removed from office after the post of insurance commissioner was abolished.
   Understandably irked by being put out of office in such an abrupt fashion, Gentry had even more reason to be peeved when Governor Carl Bailey recreated the post of insurance commissioner, subsequently choosing his own pick for the post, former commissioner M.J. Harrison. Gentry then took action, filing a suit in the circuit court of Pulaski County against Harrison, with the end goal being to have himself declared as the rightful holder of the office. A substantial write-up on this governmental fracas appeared in the Camden Times on March 11, 1937 and is shown below.

    Despite a valiant effort on his part, Gentry later lost the suit, and M.J. Harrison remained in the commissioner's post until leaving office in 1941. Gentry gained some measure of justice over a decade later in December 1952, when then-Governor Frank Cherry reappointed him as Insurance Commissioner. His second term as commissioner proved to be short-lived, as he resigned from office in April 1953, and was succeeded by Harvey G. Combs, who had served as Secretary of the Arkansas Senate during the 1952 legislative term. 
    Shortly after his resignation, Gentry continued service in state government, serving as an attorney for the Arkansas Public Service Commission. He spent the latter period of his life in the practice of law with his son Leffel and is remarked in his death notice (published in the January 1977 edition of the Arkansas Lawyer) as being "a fierce watchdog against the abuse of state funds by legislators." Widowed in 1934, Gentry later married Bernice Crafton while serving as Insurance Commissioner and the couple later divorced.  Gentry married for a third time to Mary Ellen "Mayme" Clements (1901-1992), who survived him upon his death at age 88 on September 30, 1976. The Arkansas Lawyer noted that Gentry had been an active lawyer until a few days before his death, even arguing a case before the Arkansas Supreme Court on September 17, 1976.
   Following his death, Usco A. Gentry was interred alongside his wife Lora at the Pinecrest Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Alexander, Saline County, Arkansas. Usco and Lora B. Gentry's son Claude Leffel was also interred at this cemetery following his death in 1988.

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