If it were summer, David Gentner, Ed.D, would undoubtedly be racing his BMW S1000RR motorcycle at a track in Oneonta in upstate New York. It’s long been his outlet, his reset, even before he and so many others needed one as relief from unrelenting pandemic challenges.

“It’s summer where my life changes,” he says, referring to the racing season. He compares the feeling of riding to flying a plane.

Lately, though, it’s been winter, and the 55-year-old president and CEO of the sprawling Wartburg campus for nursing care and assisted living spent much of a February day driving through a nor’easter’s snow to safely pick up staff members.

When something has needed doing, he’s done it. That includes ably taking the helm of Wartburg (a Recognized Service Organization by the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod), after its board soured on the path a predecessor had set it on.

“He has proved himself over and over again for the 11 years I’ve known him as the kind of guy who, when he meets a crisis, meets it,” observes the Rev. Amandus Derr, retired pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan and chair emeritus of Wartburg’s board, who hired him.

Derr says the board would have been satisfied with Gentner simply steadying the ship. Instead, the new CEO launched an expansion plan, securing a grant for a new rehab center and 61 affordable apartments.

In 2005, the New York Association of Homes & Services and the American College of Health Care Administrators both honored him as a top young administrator.

When the pandemic hit, Gentner and his staff “dug in and they provided the best possible services to everyone,” Derr said. 

Gentner and his wife of 26 years, Jackie, live on the 34-acre Wartburg campus in Mt. Vernon, NY, a  suburb of New York City.

The campus sits adjacent to New Rochelle, NY, one of the early epicenters for U.S. COVID-19 outbreaks. 

“Pre-COVID, you thought you knew the world and your place in the world,” he reflects, noting that the industry sees itself, its people and the work as a priority. “We thought the government and the general public understood our challenges and prioritized them accordingly. We know now that we were wrong.”

COVID-19 was a wakeup call, and he thinks the industry’s advocacy efforts need to change.

“We are not where we thought we were in terms of priorities, our voices were not being heard, our voices were not loud enough, the advocacy did not work,” he said. “Perhaps we are just too polite?” 

Born and raised in Rochester, NY, Gentner found the industry through early jobs at facilities, including mowing lawns, and then as a janitor and engineer. He was employed in entry-level positions throughout high school and college and says work saved him.

“When you clean a floor or paint a room, when you have something to show for your work, it makes you feel good about yourself,” he says. “I just always think, for me, work is a solace. It is comforting and comfortable. It is really my favorite thing to do.”

A centerpiece at Wartburg has been the facility’s Council for Creative Aging & Lifelong Learning, an arts program that Gentner launched in 2009 shortly before he became CEO.

In 2017, his dissertation research focused on music, dementia and quality of life.

Gentner, who picked up the guitar again recently, has his own “reminiscence bump” when it comes to music and memory. 

“I’m upstate New York, born in 1965, so my playlist is hard rock,” he said. “I can’t shake that.”

— Kimberly Hartley

Resume: 1990, Completes bachelor’s degree in business administration from SUNY Empire State College; 1994, Earns master’s in public administration from SUNY Brockport; 1996, Completes administrator-in-training tasks; 1996, Named director of governance and CEO affairs at St. Ann’s Community in Rochester; 1999-2001, Associate director/administrator at NY’s Canterbury Woods; 2001, Becomes president, CEO of Grace Manor Health Care Facility in Buffalo, NY; 2004, Joins Wartburg as VP, health services; 2010, Named interim CEO, president of Wartburg; 2017, Earns doctorate from St. John Fisher College; 2020, Concordia College awards him its highest honor: Servant of Christ