How I spent my summer: 'Survivor'
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But once friends saw their noticeably thinner colleague at McKitrick Elementary's recent back-to-school barbecue, the questions began.
Turns out, Gentry, 53, had been on the remote island of Koh Tarutao off the southern coast of Thailand, earning a place in pop culture history as one of 16 contestants on the reality TV show Survivor: Thailand.
"We sort of figured it out," said McKitrick Elementary principal Lisa Yost, who knew Gentry had applied for the show but not that she had made the cut.
Now the school's teachers are searching for a restaurant with TVs so they can see the show's Sept. 19 debut together. "Obviously, we'll be watching every episode," Yost said.
The contestants include a New York City police officer and a Louisiana church pastor, and they range in age from 23 to 60. Texas land broker Jake Billingsley is the oldest competitor, though Gentry is the oldest woman.
"Age is not a factor," Gentry, who has five children aged 18 to 26, said in a video clip aired Thursday on the syndicated show Inside Edition. "I will not allow it to be."
Survivor: Thailand was filmed in June and July, allowing editors lots of time to edit down mountains of footage.
To keep the show's surprises secret, CBS has forbid Gentry and the other contestants from talking directly to the media until the episode showing their ejection has aired -- requiring friends, co-workers and even Survivor host Jeff Probst to chime in about the personalities of their new recruits.
"I describe Jan as a woman who likes a nice cigar, a cool beer and a good game of poker," said Probst, who has hosted the show since its inception during the summer of 2000. "Jan came into this game saying, "I'm going to play it my way, with morals and ethics.' She came in with a certain integrity. . . . She's a real person."
Probst, who helped choose the final batch of contestants from a group of semifinalists flown to Los Angeles, said producers focused on making sure Gentry could handle the strain of the contest, which forces contestants to endure extreme hunger, weather and physical exertion.
"We tried to push her buttons and (convince) her she couldn't make it," he added. "But she performed so well in the physical (and mental) tests, she surprised us. . . . We couldn't find a reason not to take her."
Probst's comments came as no surprise to Gentry's ex-husband, Jef Russell, who was married to Gentry for 19 years in the '70s and '80s and remains friends. (She's now married to William Gentry.)
Russell remembers when his then-wife decided it was time to take up jogging. Within months, she had run her first marathon and not long after, qualified and ran in the New York Marathon.
"When she sets her mind to something, you can bank on it 100 percent," he added. "I may have been the least surprised person on the planet (when she was selected for Survivor)."
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on Halloween night, Janet Belknap attended several colleges before earning a bachelor's degree in education from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
Her chance friendship with a close friend of tennis great Martina Navratilova in Fort Worth led to a short stint as the athlete's administrative aide in the mid '80s, opening truckloads of mail and handling her telephone messages, Russell said.
By 1996, she had split with Russell and married William Gentry, moving with him from Texas to Winter Park and then to the Tampa area in 1998. That year she got her first job in the Hillsborough County school system -- a temporary teaching position at Bellamy Elementary School in Tampa.
School district records show a long list of positive evaluations and accolades for Gentry from schools in Vidor, Texas, Orlando and Tampa. Colleagues at McKitrick Elementary praise her as a dedicated and creative educator, noting her Survivor audition tape was wrapped in a pink paper signed by all her students.
"I think she could teach a brick to read," said Yost, adding Gentry wants to make sure the Survivor hype doesn't overwhelm her classroom or her students.
"She said she'd have to watch her morals and values (on the show)," added fellow first-grade teacher Crista Sontchi. "She had to be a good role model for the kids."
-- Times staff writer Melanie Ave contributed to this report.
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