Roger Gentilhomme; athlete competed after hitting 100

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 22, 2011

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The year after he retired, Roger Gentilhomme went to the recreation center near his winter home in Dunedin, Fla., and on a whim took a tennis lesson.

It was as if the game awaited his arrival. Mr. Gentilhomme began a 36-year run as an athlete, competing in tennis, bowling, and shuffleboard at senior games and collecting 40 gold medals as he traveled across the country and around the world.

“Once he found out about it, he never looked back,’’ said his daughter, Calla Jean Schaefer Adams. “He never could get enough tennis and played almost every day until a few months ago. He was out every morning.’’

Mr. Gentilhomme, who divided his time between Falmouth and Dunedin, fell and cracked four ribs during his trip north at the beginning of May. He was 102 when he died of pneumonia Saturday in Massachusetts General Hospital.

“He was remarkable in many ways and became quite an inspiration to so many people because he never stopped going,’’ said his daughter, who lives in Boston and Falmouth.

“He was always busy, he always had plans, he always had goals, and he had passions. We learned over the past several years how important it is to have passions, because it gives you a reason to get up in the morning and to stay active,’’ she said.

Chief among those passions was tennis, and Mr. Gentilhomme did not lose any sleep trying to figure out why he loved the game.

“When they retire, most people don’t have the slightest idea of what to do with themselves,’’ he told the Globe two years ago, a few days after turning 100. He said he chose tennis “because it absorbs me, so to speak.’’

Indeed, Mr. Gentilhomme did not lose much sleep, period. And that might be one reason for his longevity.

“He never had a sleep problem,’’ his daughter said. “You’d ask him how he slept, and he’d say, ‘I didn’t stay awake to find out.’ ’’

Health challenges were not absent from his life, however. He survived cancer of the esophagus in his late 70s and suffered a concussion in a fall while playing tennis.

Mostly, though, he seemed to shrug off the infirmities of age.

“He might get a cold from time to time, but he never complained about aches and pains,’’ his daughter said. “He often said he outgrew his arthritis, which is possible, I suppose.’’

Mr. Gentilhomme was born in New Bedford, the older of two siblings born to parents who, as children, emigrated from France to Canada, then moved to New Bedford to work in the mills.

He was 10 when his sister was born and had spent his early years living in an orphanage during the week while his parents worked, staying with them on the weekends and going to silent movies.

Because French was spoken at home, Mr. Gentilhomme learned English at the orphanage.

He also began playing piano and saxophone in his youth, often performing around New Bedford with a small jazz ensemble, and played piano the rest of his life.

He graduated from New Bedford High School and attended college before setting aside his studies during the Great Depression when family finances were tight.

For most of his working life, he worked in the textiles and fabric industry.

Mr. Gentilhomme was living and working in South Carolina when he married Florence May Pierce, whom he met when they both lived in New Bedford and attended dances at Lincoln Park.

Enlisting in the US Army during the 1930s when work was scarce, Mr. Gentilhomme was a textiles inspector in the Quartermaster Corps and was a major when he left the military after World War II ended.

For about 14 years, he worked in New York City and lived with his family in suburban New Rochelle.

Then the Gentilhommes moved to Wellesley, and he worked at the Natick Army Labs until retiring in the mid-1970s.

In 1972, after years of taking courses at various colleges, he received a bachelor’s degree from Framingham State College.

Mr. Gentilhomme and his wife carefully chose where they would live in retirement.

“They were very methodical,’’ their daughter said of their decision to spend summers on Cape Cod and winters in Florida. “They really wanted to be places where their family would want to come visit them.’’

Florence Gentilhomme also participated in senior competitions and was as active as her husband, joining bowling and shuffleboard leagues.

She died in January 2005 at 94.

“My parents had been out for New Year’s Eve two days before,’’ their daughter said.

“They were out dancing until 2:30 in the morning. A lot of people had gone home by then,’’ she said.

Since then, Mr. Gentilhomme continued to travel for competitions and family occasions. He toured Italy with a son and grandson last fall and flew up from Florida alone in March for a weekend to attend a ceremony when one of his grandsons was commissioned an officer in the Navy.

“The big question everyone asks is, ‘What do you attribute this to?’ Well, I can’t attribute it to anything,’’ he told the Globe in 2009. “I haven’t the slightest idea why I’m here. But — and here’s what I tell everyone — I do watch out for myself. If something starts irritating me, I try to find out what it is and get it fixed.’’

Although Mr. Gentilhomme lived longer than most, “what’s sad is that he still had big plans,’’ his daughter said yesterday.

He planned to take part in the National Senior Games, which are being held now in Houston, and hoped to attend an international competition this fall in Poland.

“He had goals and future plans he was really, really looking forward to,’’ his daughter said. “Most of us after the age of whatever, we look forward to lunch and dinner. A lot of people don’t have a lot more than that, but he did.’’

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Gentilhomme leaves two sons, Clovis of Hopkinton, N.H., and Claude of Concord, N.H.; 13 grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 1 p.m. Friday in St. Patrick Church in Falmouth.

Burial will be in National Veterans Cemetery in Bourne.

Tennis buddies excluded, Mr. Gentilhomme was known to most as Pepere, from the informal French for grandfather.

“One of his passions was his family,’’ his daughter said. “The more love he gave us, the more love we gave back to him, and I think he realized we wanted him to keep going. He knew he mattered to us, and we made him feel important.

“That was the second thing we’ve learned about aging and staying alive longer. If you matter to people, it really gives you a reason to keep living.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at