AN ICONIC FALLON BUSINESSMAN
Businessman Jeff Christiansen has spent many years in downtown Fallon and has fond memories of many merchants who made the downtown a vibrant place to shop.
Christiansen reflected on his friendship with Robert “Bob” Kent, a longtime Fallon businessman who was known for many years for having the only grocery store in town. The 90-year-old Kent died Monday at his home surrounded by his family. A funeral service will be conducted Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Epworth United Methodist Church.
“I always enjoyed our moments together,” said Christiansen, who owned Jeff’s Office Supply and now Jeff’s Digitex Printing. “We were in Rotary together for a number of years.”
Christiansen and Kent shared a common interest in keeping the downtown spirit alive. Their businesses faced each other on South Maine and Center streets. Kent operated Fallon’s only grocery store for years until Raley’s opened its store in the 1970s. Seeing the need for another store to serve Austin, a 110-mile trip east of Fallon, Kent opened his second grocery store that began his seven-year stint to deliver supplies and manage the store. The store closed in 1996.
“He ran a truck up there when the mines were open,” Christiansen said of the Austin venture.
ONE OF A KIND STORE
Kent’s grocery store was one of a kind with its wooden floors, hometown feel and varied assortment of merchandise ranging from hardware to groceries.
“Amazing the different things that were sold,” said Karla Kent, a niece. “It started out as a general mercantile and sold everything including dynamite.”
During the later years, the store sold goldfish and hamsters downstairs in the basement, and Karla Kent said customers shopped for a variety of merchandise found throughout the store from clothes to lawn and yard equipment.
Karla Kent, whose late father Tom owned Kent’s Supply Center, had fun as a young girl inside the grocery store.
“It was really fun to there, and I remember running up and down the aisles on the wooden floors and going down to the basement and playing hide and seek,” she said.
Karla Kent also had her first taste of the grocery business when she would help bag groceries.
“I liked to bag groceries, and I would get dropped off. I would put out a little shelf I could stand on and bag the groceries for the customers. I would get away with that for a couple of hours, and after awhile, Uncle Bob would chase me off,” she recalled, laughing about her early experiences.
The main grocery store in Fallon shuttered its doors in 1992 and four years later, the store in Austin closed. Like many grocery store owners in other small Nevada communities, Christiansen said Kent offered credit to his customers and carried the accounts until a payment was made.
“He was great about it,” Christiansen said.
His daughter, Cynthia Kent-Dillon, said her father understood Fallon and the hardships others faced when making a living.
“He had admiration for what they accomplished,” she said.
the beginning of success
Because of that desire to be a successful businessman and to help others, Kent-Dillon said her father immersed himself in the grocery store until it closed 24 years ago.
“He had a lot of vision, a lot of tenacity to stay in business,” she said until his retirement. “As I spent more time with him, I understand what he had to do as a businessman to keep his doors open.”
Kent-Dillon said the grocery store provided a rallying point both for friends and customers. Along with two brothers, Tom and Ken, and cousin Joe Wallace, they were involved in numerous businesses that included ranching; operating an alfalfa mill and sugar beet factory; selling farm equipment, lumber and feed; and processing meat.
It wasn’t hard to miss the tall, white-haired Kent as he helped customers either checking them out at the cash register or assisting a customer.
“I was always impressed with his white hair. He was a very distinguished looking gentleman,” said Christiansen, noting Kent’s demeanor also showed how much a gentleman he was.
Both businessmen were involved with the Downtown Merchants Association and never gave up hope for the Maine Street corridor although many businesses either closed or moved to Williams Avenue.
“He was an interesting fellow, and I could always count on him to do the right thing in any situation,” Christiansen added.
After he retired from the grocery business, Kent acquired additional commercial and residential properties and then had them remodeled and rented. By managing the properties until he celebrated his 86th birthday, he enjoyed and continued his long tradition of interacting with the public.
Robert Kent was a longtime member of several community organizations and carried on the longtime family tradition of civic service. His father was a founding member of the Fallon Rotary Club, and Kent-Dillon said her father continued the tradition and had received two Paul Harris Awards.
In addition to his involvement in the Downtown Merchants Association, Kent also served as president of the Fallon Chamber of Commerce. Even in his golden years, Kent still envisioned the downtown area returning to its former self, a center of shopping and dining. Kent-Dillon said he was excited to see a food hub open on East Center Street with hopes it would revitalize Fallon’s downtown area.
Robert Kent was born to Ira Longfellow and Margaret Anna Dolf Kent on July 10, 1925 in San Francisco. His grandparents came to Fallon by way of Virginia City, Switzerland and the Stillwater Valley in the late 1800s.
As a young boy, he spent time on his grandfather’s ranch running errands and eventually working in the family business. He graduated from Churchill County High School in 1942, but after receiving his diploma, Kent boarded the train from Hazen and headed to San Diego three days after commencement where he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps several months shy of his 18th birthday.
WAR in the pacific
According to his family, Robert Kent served as a gunner on the USS Monterey, an Independence-light aircraft carrier that had been retrofitted from a cruiser and recommissioned in June 1943.
The USS Monterey served in the western Pacific Theater, and its crew reached the Gilbert Islands, combat operations with Task Force 58 including campaigns in the Carolines, Marianas and New Guinea as well as the decisive Battle of the Philippine Sea, which was the virtual end of the Japanese Navy.
The USS Monterey was one of the first ships to particiapte in the occupation of Japan after August 1945.
Dillon-Kent said her father rarely talked about his war service.
“His ship experienced a typhoon and then a fire. I know he had to wrap some of the bodies,” Kent-Dillon said. “He was a gunner, which was difficult for him.”
Typhoon Cobra struck the Pacific fleet in December 1944, and at the height of the storm, several planes on the deck of the USS Monterey tore loose fro mtheir cables. That led to fires on the hangar deck.
Coincidently, Gerald Ford, who later became a member of the House of Representatives and then president from 1974-76, had served as General Quarters Officer of the Deck during the storm and subsequent fire. In January 1945, the aircraft carrier returned to Bremerton, Wash., for a major overall before returning to the Western Pacific to support Okinawa operations.
According to the Kent family, Kent used the GI bill to attend the University of Nevada, Reno majoring in business administration and graduating in 1950. He was a member of the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega.
One of his classmates and fraternity brothers was Ed Arciniega, who later became a teacher, coach and athletic director for the Churchill County School District.
Call it irony or coincidental, after graduating in 1943, Arciniega also enlisted in the U.S. Marines during World War II. He spent most of his military tour on the aircraft carrier USS Essex, which served in several campaigns in the western Pacific Theater of Operations.
Likewise, Arciniega, who died in April, also used the GI Bill to enroll at the University of Nevada.
While at the University of Nevada, Kent was treasurer for Coffin and Keys (men’s honorary society), a member of the Sundowners and business manager of the Sagebrush (newspaper) and Artemisia (yearbook).
He met his future wife, Muriel Evelyn Smiley, who was an education major and also involved as a treasurer at the Artemisia. They fell in love, married and celebrated 63 years of marriage in December.
City Councilman Bob Erickson, who formerly owned Fallon Theatres and served as mayor, said his association with Kent goes back to the mid-1970s when the Ericksons moved to Fallon.
“We were acquaintances, but we shard an interest in the downtown. We both had businesses and were on the Fraternal Hall Board (Masonic Lodge) together,” Erickson said. “We had a good business relationship.”
Along with several other businessmen, for example, Erickson and Kent put together plans for the Churchill Village apartment complex, which is on North Maine Street.
Erickson remembers Kent as a hard worker who spent six to seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day working in the store.
“He was very successful and laid the foundation of what we have in Fallon today,” Erickson said,
According to Erickson, Kent was the last of the of the city’s merchants who began their businesses before or after World War II.
Erickson said Kent was part of “The Greatest Generation,” a term coined by newscaster Tom Brokaw.
“It was a tough period of time for about 15-20 years,” Erickson saidof the Great Depression and war. “Bob’s philosophy was shaped by that.”