On Wednesday night, an all-star lineup performed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House, raising money for the 9-month-old Troy Gentry Foundation at the invitation of Angie Gentry, the Montgomery Gentry member’s widow.
But what Blake Shelton, Rascal Flatts, Dierks Bentley and others at the sell-out concert probably didn’t know is that Angie Gentry’s efforts to keep her husband’s big-hearted spirit alive quietly began on the very day that she lost him, Sept. 8, 2017, in a New Jersey helicopter accident.
Even as she was trying to absorb the news, she publicly reveals for the first time, one thought came to her mind: Could something be done to help others? Could she donate her husband’s organs?
“If this is your time and God says, I’m taking you home today,” Gentry, 52, tells PEOPLE exclusively, “but other parts of you still work perfectly well that could help somebody else, why would you not donate them? You don’t throw something away that’s perfect. It was something I felt Troy would have said: Do it.”
Still in a state of shock where she was “just trying to breathe,” she reached out to New Jersey hospital officials from her Nashville-area home. Soon she learned that, although her husband’s organs weren’t viable for transplant because of his injuries, his bones, tissue and corneas were all worthy candidates. To complete the process, Angie Gentry composed herself and spent over an hour on the phone answering questions about the medical history of her husband of 18 years.
“I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t want to make a donation because what’s it going to hurt?” says Gentry, whose sister is a kidney transplant recipient. “And it’s going to help somebody.”
Gentry brought this same sense of selflessness to the couple’s tight circle of friends last year as they talked about how to carry on the singer’s legacy. The conversation turned to the idea of a foundation.
“We had to do something because he was such a huge persona,” she recalls. “He just couldn’t go away like that.”
The group, made up mostly of friends outside the music industry, formed the nonprofit around three of Troy Gentry’s passions: cancer research, in recognition of Angie Gentry’s successful battle with breast cancer in 2015; military family assistance, a nod to Montgomery Gentry’s many concerts at military outposts; and music education to create new generations of artists.
After raising over $100,000 in a benefit golf tournament last year, Angie Gentry and the other foundation organizers set their sights higher with plans for the concert.
To recruit performers, Angie Gentry reached for her husband’s phone directory and started calling the numbers he’d filed away. First on her list was Blake Shelton, who rose through the ranks with Troy Gentry in the late 1990s.
“We were at the same management company back in the very beginning when they both had mullets and nobody knew who they were,” Angie Gentry recalls. “There was that tall, skinny Blake with that long, crazy hair. There’s Troy, tall and skinny with that crazy-looking hair. Blake said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it. What do you need?’ … Almost everybody said yes.”
The ones who didn’t, she says, all wished they could. “Luke Bryan was filming American Idol,” she says. “He goes, ‘Angie, I’ll do anything. I’ll give you whatever you need, but I just can’t be there.’ And he was sick over it.” Keith Urban, who attended Gentry’s funeral, also was out of town and sent his regrets.
No matter. The roster was filled with stellar names, including Rascal Flatts, Bentley, Chris Janson, Jon Pardi, Dustin Lynch, Lee Brice and, of course, Eddie Montgomery.
Bentley, who also attended the funeral, joined Montgomery and Rascal Flatts as part of the CMA tribute to Gentry at its 2017 awards show. During a commercial break that night, Angie Gentry recalls, Bentley gave her an envelope containing a handwritten note.
“It just said, ‘I’m here, I’m sorry. He was a great guy. He was my friend. If you need anything, here’s my number,’” she remembers. “And so I called him, and he goes, ‘Sure.’”
Angie Gentry and Montgomery have stayed in touch over the months as they’ve taken their separate paths of grief, and she says she attended one of his early concerts as a solo act.
“Shoo, it was hard,” she says. “Several of us got together and watched the whole thing through tears. I gave Eddie and the band all of the credit. I mean, it’s hard to get up there when there’s a missing piece. You kept looking, and you’re like, ‘Where is he?’”
The benefit concert, which raised more than $300,000, was another emotion-packed night for Gentry’s widow. “I get so excited because it’s a great thing we’re doing,” she said two days before the event. “And then sometimes it kicks you in the face about why it’s happening, and that sets you back a little bit. You want to do great things. You want to keep the legacy and the memory alive, but you hate why you have to do it.”
Angie Gentry says the foundation anticipates making the concert an annual event. Something else she looks forward to is the day that she meets some of the people who benefited from her husband’s tissue and bone donations. The Gift of Life Donor Program, the Philadelphia organization that managed the donation, facilitates get-togethers between donor families and recipients.
“It will be neat to just give them a hug and say I’m glad I could help,” she says.
RELATED VIDEO: Eddie Montgomery Lost ‘A Little Piece Of My Soul’ After Troy Gentry’s Helicopter Accident
She especially would like to meet the person who received her husband’s corneas to see what “I used to look through every day that I loved so much, to see that somebody had better vision or has a better life because of it.”
Sometimes, she says, her husband would question his purpose in life. Now more than ever, she says, she knows he didn’t have to — something she wishes she could tell him.
“You may not have been completely clear about it when you were here,” she says, imagining that conversation, “but I know from the stories I’ve heard since you’ve been gone that you had a huge purpose.”
“And,” she adds, “you’re still fulfilling that purpose.”
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