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Surviving is elementary

Tampa teacher Jan Gentry achieves instant Survivor: Thailand fame as the oldest players pick tribes.

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
From left, Elyse Keene, Trish Whitelaw and Mandee Smith cheer McKitrick Elementary co-worker Jan Gentry during the Survivor: Thailand debut, which they watched Thursday from the Tampa Ale House.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002

Jan Gentry
So far, she's done us all proud.

That's the conclusion this critic has reached, anyway, after watching Thursday's debut episode of Survivor: Thailand, in which Tampa resident Jan Gentry played a starring role without coming close to ejection from the game.

Viewers saw Gentry and 15 other contestants take residence on the island of Koh Tarutao -- the largest remote jungle island in southern Thailand -- embarking on the reality TV show's time-honored formula of deprivation, competition and personal politics.

Producers had promised a twist to Survivor's well-known framework and they delivered, immediately dividing the contestants by gender -- which had hoodwinked some fans into thinking that would be the change -- before selecting the group's two oldest contestants to pick the game's two teams.

(Host Jeff Probst, in a typical burst of Survivor-speak, said they were picked because "in Thailand, the elders are treated with the utmost respect." Whatever.)

That meant Gentry, 53, and land broker Jake Billingsley, 61, would pick the two competing groups -- with Gentry's team, Chuay Gahn, represented by a orange sash and Billingsley's pack, Sook Jai, represented by purple.

"I really did kind of get scared," Gentry said. "I'm not really a leader. And I was put in the spotlight, which kind of frightened me."

As you might expect from a first-grade teacher known as everybody's cheerleader at McKitrick Elementary School, Gentry picked a team filled with nice, older people who didn't fit the typical mold for Survivor success: small, fortysomething Clay Jordan; perpetually sick Tanya Vance; chubby legal secretary Ghandia Johnson.

Indeed, contestants hoping to land on Billingsley's team snickered at the "little old lady" -- they apparently hadn't yet learned of her habit of running 3 to 5 miles daily -- avoiding eye contact with her to get in the younger, more athletic group.

"I don't know what Jan was thinking," added Billingsley, who chose hunky, musclebound dudes: skateboarder Robb Zbacnik; athletic dental student Jed Hildebrand; New York City police officer Ken Stafford. "I based picking the teams on athleticism and just that gleam in their eye."

Or, as Zbacnik so poetically put it: "We definitely got all the hot chicks."

It's here that Survivor's producers excelled, exposing how Billingsley's team was less cohesive and tense, bouncing off each other in a haze of testosterone and youthful energy.

With both teams sent off to find water and shelter with a map, paddle boat, can of beans and little else, Gentry's group quickly found a cave for shelter and drinking water -- while Billingsley's crew fought over whether to build a shelter or gather food, winding up stuck in the open during a driving rainstorm.

"That's why shelter's so important dude," shouted an amped-up Zbacnik, quickly emerging as the group bonehead.

In Chuay Gahn, Gentry quickly took a back seat to bossy Louisiana pastor John Raymond -- a counselor and clergyman so clueless he never saw it coming when the tribe turned on him.

Despite foreshadowing that hinted Johnson would get the hook -- a Survivor trademark -- Gentry's team ejected Raymond after losing a close immunity challenge race to Sook Jai. Johnson, after all, had blown the team's big lead during the race, forcing them to eject someone during an emotional Tribal Council ceremony.

But Raymond, it seemed, forgot the cardinal rule of Survivor's early days: the biggest, bossiest jerk often hits the showers first.

"This is quite a surprise for me," Raymond said, clueless to the end. "I didn't think there were any alliances on this team, but I guess there were."

McKitrick Elementary School became its own tribe Thursday night, as roughly 70 or so teachers, administrators and friends assembled at the Tampa Ale House on North Dale Mabry Highway with one goal: cheering their pal Gentry.

They wore white T-shirts with the phrase "Survive Thailand ... That's Nothing" in blue lettering, passing around wings and bottles of beer.

The cheers came often: at the show's introduction, at the first brief glimpse of Gentry, when she had to pick tribe members, when two of the show's young hunks bared their pecs. They pounded on tables and cheered endlessly as the two tribes raced in the immunity challenge, reaching ear-splitting levels when Gentry maneuvered a rope through a table maze.

"She's tough, she's a go-getter," said kindergarten teacher Sheri Norkas. "She's going to step up and get what she wants."

Gentry wasn't there -- she was sheltered at an unknown location -- but she'll be back to school Monday. The teachers plan to greet her in a new tribal uniform: overalls and orange bandanas, with their hair in pigtails. (Those who missed Thursday's show can catch CBS's rebroadcast at 9 p.m. Saturday.)

As Raymond's torch was symbolically snuffed and he took the long walk off the show, teacher Denise Cateledge summed up everyone's feeling at the Ale House: "It wasn't Jan, and that's a good thing."

-- Staff writer John Balz contributed to this report.

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