Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Globetrotting government employee carries memories of past life

Jack Kent poses outside the All Wars Museum on the grounds of the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy. Kent says he worked for the government at one time, but "we can just leave it there." | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 19, 2017 8:50 am Updated: Jun. 19, 2017 9:39 am

QUINCY -- The gold Egyptian ankh ring Jack Kent wears at all times is a reminder of the exciting decades he spent working for the federal government. It tells a secret story of foreign missions, a story few even know exists.

Twisting the small oval ring from his right ring finger, he points out the flaw in the craftsmanship just below the Ankh -- it could easily be mistaken for a cross at first glance. The store was going to craft him a new one, but he had to return to the states before it could be finished. He doesn't mind the tiny divot in his memento though. It shows the piece was made by hand, and it makes it unique.

"If you look at the Egyptian hieroglyphics, and you see someone with this symbol, that was the pharoah," he said, examining the piece that has been with him for years. "I just thought it would make a good symbol, significant and different."

He had the ring designed in a gold shop in Cairo while on one of his more memorable missions. Tasked with working in a large-scale cement factory in the middle of the desert, he counts that assignment as one of his few "undercover" jobs -- when he left the embassy and went out into the field.

"I worked for the government," he said. "We can just leave it there."

What agency? He'd rather not say. What was his title? He didn't have one. What were his assignments? We'll just say interviewing and collecting information. How did he find such a job? Government contacts made in the service. That's all you're going to get.

‘This was out of a movie'

Kent grew up in coal mining country, an industry that employed most of his family members and would claim the lives of three uncles -- two through black lung and one in a cave-in. When the family moved to Gary, Ind., just after his freshman year, he basically wrote off school. Rather than starting over and making all new friends, he quit shortly after sophomore year began and found a job as a stockboy at Goldblatt's.

A stint in the Army, courtesy of the draft, prompted him to continue his education when he got out. He got his GED and parlayed that into a degree from Purdue University in electrical engineering. It wasn't long before he was being shipped all over the world -- often without any idea what his assignment would be until his arrival.

His white beard trimmed tight and white bangs falling out below his "Korea Veteran" baseball cap in an almost boyish way, Kent walks the line between youth and age. The sunglasses perched on the bill of the hat and the reading glasses hanging around his neck only further the juxtaposition. There are wrinkles on his face, but his eyes still light up from the depths of their dark sockets and, casually kicked back in a folding chair, he perks up when recounting the adrenaline rush of a dangerous mission in Egypt.

"This was out of a movie. No two ways about it," he said. "This one got kind of scary."

Launching into a well-practiced story about being caught without any paperwork in the middle of the desert by armed Egyptian security guards, his demeanor changes, albeit almost imperceptibly, as he returns to that moment. He can see the armored personnel carrier in the distance kick up dust as it speeds toward the vehicle his driver, Mahmoud, is flooring down the only road that cuts through a restricted valley they aren't supposed to be in.

"That day, of all days, our Puegeot was in for service, and they'd given us a Mercedes," he said, noting the differences between both vehicles for desert travel.

His hand arches up and then dips down as he describes the massive pot holes and patches of washed out road the duo swerved to avoid while trying to beat the guards to the finish.

"We tried to race them," he said. "They got to the highway before we did."

He still kicks himself for forgetting his passport that morning. Hands on the vehicle and being patted down, Mahmoud, a native Egyptian, pressured the armed officers, and the duo was allowed to speed away.

Settling down after globetrotting career

Cairo was an exciting mission. Moscow was, too. But they only scratch the surface of Kent's many decades with the government -- a career that saw him stationed in 35 countries.

The globetrotting life has not been without its downfalls though. Maintaining relationships while abroad, particularly before the age of the cellphone, was nearly impossible. His son, Steve, was stationed on the U.S.S. Iowa in 1989 when a massive turret exploded on the ship. Kent was stationed in Moscow at the time. The Cold War was in full swing and communication was significantly diminished -- incoming letters delayed by up to two weeks. Letters from the ship were also two weeks out, so Kent was facing up to a month of uncertainty as to whether his son was alive, unless he could get ahold of someone on the phone.

"There was no information at all coming in," he said. "I ran into this Marine colonel I knew, and I explained it to him. Two hours later, the phone rang, and it was him. He said, ‘I don't know if he was injured, but I know your son wasn't killed.' That was a relief."

Steve had seen the explosion from his post but had escaped uninjured. Forty-seven service members were lost in the tragedy.

The man who once had five passports -- two tourist passports he filled up and multiple diplomatic and official ones -- settled down in the Quincy area with his third wife, Carol, a Golden native, in the late 1990s after his last mission in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was the first time he had settled anywhere since he was a young adult. He never had a permanent residence during his time with the government. If he was home long enough, he would find a month-to-month apartment, otherwise he had a business front he used as an answering service and a physical location for his mail to be sent.

Carol was his neighbor in one of those temporary apartments in La Salle, Ill. After weeks of seeing each other in passing, he made his move.

"I asked her if she wanted a ride on my motorcycle," he said with a faint grin.

Carol died three weeks ago, on May 26, 2017. The couple had been together since 1996. Without her, he has few ties to the area where he has resided for over two decades. Steve has settled in La Salle, and he has outlived most of his friends.

"I don't really have many friends anymore," Kent said.

It doesn't match the excitement of his early days racing motorcycles and sportscars or his government missions, but Kent has been volunteering at the All Wars Museum at the Illinois Veterans Home for the last 16 years. It gives him a purpose, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and in it, he has carved out a new, low-key niche.

"I'm a 30-year-old who is going on 84. I've always enjoyed the excitement," he said, "I've done some crazy things, and I loved every minute of it."

Each Monday, Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident.

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