In May 1961, by any objective measure, Kent Amerine’s future was very bright. A newly minted graduate from GBHS, he was an accomplished athlete, an Eagle Scout and oldest of five. A leader in Troop 150, he also distinguished himself in the Explorer Post 156, which is scouting for boys who had aged out of Boy Scouts. His three younger brothers –Marvin, Glen and Clyde – followed his path to become Eagle Scouts. Kent’s sister Elaine loved the outdoors and achieved the highest rank in Girl Scouts.
Kent’s dad Loren owned Amerine Electric. He was a WWII veteran and served in the Battle of the Bulge. He was also a scout leader, and had a penchant for building canoes so his sons could navigate the streams and lakes during their many campouts. Kent’s mom Nadine was a Girl Scout leader, a Red Cross Water Safety instructor and taught lifesaving merit badge.
“Kent was a natural-born leader,” remembers his brother Clyde. “He could be in a room and as people came into the room, they would gravitate towards him. He was a good listener and very genuine.” Kent had a maturity that was beyond his years. “He taught me how important safety always was in every walk of life” remembers Glen.
The Amerines lived at 2201 Harrison.
Kent was headed to Fort Hays State to study business. Just before classes started, he joined a fraternity, TKE and gained fifty best friends. He was studious but had a fun, curious way about him. It was the Fall of 1964. Kent and two fraternity brothers attended a party at the house of another Hays student, Shelly Ruder.
Kent was mingling when his gaze came upon a petite blonde with a broad smile and a bobbed hairstyle. Her name was Kathy Walters. She was at the party as Shelly Ruder’s best friend. “Kent had curly hair, big brown eyes and a sweet disposition,” Kathy recalled. His broad shoulders and a square jaw helped him stand out. Kent was 20. Kathy was 17.
Kathy Walters was one of nine, the oldest daughter. Her parents were William and Fidelia. Bill was a WWII veteran and served during D-Day. After his service, he returned to Hays to work for Standard Oil and kept busy with the extensive oil reserves in Ellis and the surrounding counties. Fidelia raised her children and then used her culinary traits to become the head cook at the all-girls school in Hays, Marian High School. They were active in Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Hays. The Amerines were Methodist, belonging to First United Methodist Church in Great Bend. By some measures, the Walters and Amerines represented two distinct cultures that were well defined in the 1960’s. Those differences were not apparent to anyone who saw Kathy and Kent’s courtship flourish.
On their first date they went to a movie. In no time, they were a couple. When Kent took Kathy to meet his parents she stayed in a room upstairs and he stayed downstairs. “In the morning he came to my room with his guitar and sang to me. That was the clincher. Boy did I think he thought I was the greatest person on earth.”
The spring of ‘65 arrived and their relationship continued. But the tranquility of life at Fort Hays in the Spring of 1965 was in stark contrast to the turmoil half a world away. With Lyndon Johnson’s election as President in November, 1964, the conflict in Southeast Asia was escalating. Just three months after Johnson was sworn in, he approved Operation Rolling Thunder. Hundreds of bombers began attacking targets in North Vietnam. Two months later, in May, the first combat troops, 3500 men of the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived in Vietnam.
In April, Kent and Kathy were engaged. On May 3, 1965 Kent enlisted and went to boot camp to Fort Leonard Wood. He returned a month later.
They were married on June 26, 1965 at St. Joseph’s church in Hays. The officiant, Father Tim Gottschalk, was Kathy’s uncle.
A month later the front page of the Sunday Tribune read “Argonne Rebels Take 65 March of Champions” besting the Hutchinson Sky Riders in the March of Champions. The society page contained the headline: “Walters-Amerine Exchange Nuptial Vows in Church Rites.” Kathy wore a floor length gown of imported rayon organza and three-dimensional Venice lace over a bridal taffeta. “The molded lace bodice was fashioned with a scoop neckline and elbow-length sleeves.” The wedding reception was at Jefferson East School. It was full.
Kathy and Kent moved to San Antonio and lived in separate housing – Kent on Fort Sam Houston army base, and Kathy in a smaller trailer off the base. Then came Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas where they could finally live together. Their first son, David was born there.
Kent had trained to be a medic, meaning he would be responsible for providing first aid and front line emergency care to soldiers injured on the battlefield. He loved the assignment but probably had little appreciation that medics was one of the most dangerous assignments in the Army. They were called into hot zones and were often exposed to sniper fire from the thick vegetation. At that time medics didn’t even carry a weapon.
By the spring of 1966, the inevitability of Kent going to Vietnam became clear. In June, Kent and Kathy spent one last weekend in Great Bend with his family. Kent and his brother Marvin were walking near downtown when they ran into Floyd Anderson, a GBHS classmate and fellow Explorer Scout. Floyd had returned from a stint in the Navy in Vietnam.
Floyd learned about Kent’s soon departure. Floyd’s eyes grew large and he grabbed Kent by the shirt. “Don’t go! Go to Canada or any place! Don’t go to Vietnam! It is crazy over there!” Kent brushed away Floyd’s hands and was undeterred. “I’m going” he said. “It’s my duty.”
Kent left for Vietnam on June 25, 1966. He was in the 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, A company.
Kathy had moved from El Paso back to Hays to gain the support of her parents. There she learned she was expecting once again. She was living a block from her parents at 202 East 17th street in Hays.
It was Thursday, August 4, 1966. Kathy Amerine had just finished her lunch in her modest two bedroom home. David was slumbering in his crib. Her mind drifted to her husband as it often did.
“I opened the door to see a man in uniform standing there, with both of my parents. I had no intuition that there was anything wrong. They said Kent was missing. When I heard that, I did not conceive that he had been killed. I just thought that he was in the jungle and they had not found his unit. It was very difficult not knowing what had happened but I had hope. I was twenty years old. The last thing I thought was that Kent would not come home.”
“They asked if they could do anything for me. My reply was quick – “find him”. Four days later, on Sunday morning, they returned to say Kent was dead. He died in an ambush just after being dropped off by a helicopter on August 2.
Kent’s brother Marvin recalls that day very distinctly. “There had been a terrible lightning storm in Great Bend on Saturday night, August 8. Many homes were without power and dad and I were working to help restore power. The call came that Kent’s body had been found. I was at the Amerine Electric shop alone and got the phone call. They asked me to inform dad and I drove to where he was and gently told him that Kent’s body had been found. I had never seen dad cry before.”
Kathy’s brother Terry was in the Navy, stationed on USS Benner. “I got my orders to go to Oakland and accompany Kent back to Great Bend. I remember the honor guard loading his casket draped in a flag and put on the train and we rode back to Kansas.” The trip took four days. “It was an honor but obviously I was afraid and nervous about seeing my sister. It was a very very difficult time.”
“I was in a state of shock” remembers Kathy “I was medicated because of my pregnancy so I just went through the motions of the funeral.”
Because Kent’s body was not found for several days and the Vietnam August heat, Kathy never saw Kent’s body. Kathy had an uncle, Sylvester Appelhanes who was a mortician. He handled the funeral. “They made the decision to not let me see him. Because of that, I had difficulty with closure. For years, I thought they made a mistake. I always hoped that when the POW’s were returned Kent would be one of them.” The difficulty with closure was shared with Kent’s entire family.
Picking up the pieces
On August 17, 1966, there were two funerals for Kent. Great Bend, then Hays.
Three months and eighteen days later, on December 5, Kent Mitchell Amerine was born.
Four months later Kathy decided she needed a change. She loaded up two sons under the age of two, put all her possessions in her VW Beetle and drove to California. The Beetle was free of debt thanks to a life insurance rider on the loan they purchased. Her brother Terry had been discharged from the Navy and was working for IBM near Santa Monica. Kathy’s brother David agreed to ride with her. The drive took two days. When they reached LA, Kathy dropped David off at LAX.
“We loved it out there. Terry had many friends and really took care of us. They welcomed me.” She joined St. Monica parish in Santa Monica. There an iconic church leader named Msgr. Raymond O’Flaherty took her under his wing and helped her feel like she was a part of the community. “He got my son David enrolled in the parish school which was very affluent and well-funded.”
They stayed west for four years. Turbulence in the public schools lead her back to Kansas.
Kathy married Larry Brenner several years after she returned to Hays. Larry adopted Dave and Mitch.
Kent left a very strong legacy in his two sons, David and Kent (Mitch) Brenner. Kathy recalls that, “David, is the spitting image of his father. Not only does he look like Kent but also he has the same disposition.” David graduated from Fort Hays State University, met and married his wife Stacey, and then moved to Great Bend to join his Uncle Glen Amerine in Amerine Utilities Construction business for the last 30 years. David’s two daughters, Megan and Ashley have heard many stories about their grandfather. They each proudly carried his Purple Heart in their bouquets when they married.
Mitch who was named after his father (Kent Mitchell) also bears strong resemblance to his dad. After graduating from Hays, he moved to Meade, KS and he and his wife Cindy have two kids, Molly and Mason. He works for AT&T as a supervisor.
Kathy has had two sons with Larry Brenner – Matthew and Adam. Matthew was born on Kent’s birthday – April 4th. After Matthew’s freshman year of college, he decided to go into the military. He asked Kathy for permission. “Matthew knew how I had talked about how difficult it was for me after Kent died. But I gave him my blessing. He spent six years in the Navy and was assigned to a nuclear sub. He was discharged, married Mandy and gave me two wonderful granddaughters, Haley and Kyla.” They live in Wallace, Nebraska.
Adam and his wife Mindy live in Olathe, Ks where he works for Freight Quote. They have two sons, Braden and Logan, and a daughter, Anna.
The Vietnam wall preserves Kent Amerine’s sacrifice, but one has to wonder if in fact a more fitting legacy to his life is that represented by his wife, his sons, and his immediate family. The character and courage demanded of Kent in difficult times was unquestionably evident in the mettle shown by everyone around him who were impacted by his tragic passing.
Matt is a former Great Bend resident and a GBHS graduate. You can write to Matt at email@example.com.