Dr. Kelly Segars has built a wonderful life
By Matt Westerfield
Dr. Kelly Segars still remembers the first time he set eyes on a pair of skin-tight blue jeans. It was 1955, he was living in Nashville and the blue jeans belonged to country singer Audrey Williams, first wife of Hank Williams.
The Segars family are (front row, from left) Dr. Scott Segars and his wife Diane, Leigh Ann Segars, James with his mother and father, Lynn and Mark Segars. Back row: Martha and Dr. Kelly Segars, Tyler Segars, Thompson Segars, Annie Segars and Jake Segars. Tyler, Thompson and Jake are the sons of Scott and Diane Segars, and Annie is the daughter of Lynn and Mark Segars.
“I was working at a drug store out in the suburbs and Hank Williams’ wife, Miss Audrey, came in one day,” Segars recalled. “Back then all the drug stores had a soda fountain. It was Saturday morning and all the chairs were full, guys drinking coffee and so forth. And Miss Audrey came in the front door and walked the length of the drugstore. And as she passed you could hear each one of those chairs creak …”
By that point in his life as a young man in his mid-20s, Segars had already earned a degree in pharmacy, been to war, learned to fly and become a father. He had followed his wife, Martha, to Nashville, where she was completing a dietitian internship at Vanderbilt University. But after his six-month stay in the Music City, as well as stints in Virginia, Hawaii, Korea and the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Segars’ wanderlust came to an abrupt end when the Alabama-native settled in the small town of Iuka, Miss. Something about the Tishomingo County town in the northeast corner of the state felt right to the new physician. With Martha and their soon-to-be three children, he began building a legacy of health care and economic development that will last for generations.
Segars was born an only child in the small town of Red Bay, Ala. Having no siblings, he felt a responsibility for looking after his parents once he came of age. But after graduating from medical school in 1959, he found job prospects in Red Bay slim to none.
“I had an aunt who was teaching school here (in Iuka). I had a friend from medical school who was practicing here, and I was close enough to Red Bay,” he said.
In 1960, the town had a small 20-bed hospital. Segars and two other physicians, Drs. Lewis George and Bobby King, joined together to start a new family practice, aiming to close the gap in Iuka’s health-care needs. And to hear Segars tell it, they saw it all.
“We did everything. We even did surgery; we had a surgeon from Corinth who came over here and would scrub in, and we’d help him in surgery,” he said. “We treated fractures and even delivered babies.”
Meanwhile, the Iuka hospital gained a talented young hospital administrator named Bob Lambert, with whom Segars forged a collaborative partnership to the benefit of each practice.
In 1976, Segars attended an American Medical Association convention in San Francisco to share training he’d received in advanced CPR. While there, he was wowed by the latest in mammography X-ray technology.
“All I could think was, my God, this is going to save millions of lives,” said Segars. “I told (Lambert) what I’d seen and asked him if he’d buy one for the Iuka hospital. Lambert said, ‘I will if you’ll use it.’”
Segars promised to make it routine for any woman 40-years-old or older who visited his clinic to get a mammogram.
When the machine was installed, Segars said it was the only one located in a hospital in the state, apart from one at UMMC. “But this was the first one in a hospital outside of Jackson.”
Sadly, Lambert died soon after from viral encephalitis. With the loss of a key partner at the Iuka Hospital, Segars added a mammogram machine to his own clinic, which he credits with saving his wife’s life.
“She is five years post-op from breast cancer,” he said. “We found it with our mammogram machine. So you never know how things are going to turn out.”
From Pharmacist to Physician
Dr. Kelly Segars poses with nurse Sandy Davis, the first baby he delivered in 1960 after he began practicing in the family clinic that he opened in Iuka. Davis now works in the clinic.
Segars and Martha were high school sweethearts at Red Bay high school in the late 1940s. As a teenager, Segars developed an early interest in science, which led him to Auburn University after graduating as class valedictorian. He studied pharmacy and got a job in the dining hall.
Motivated by his father’s work ethic, Segars also joined the Army ROTC program, which paid 90 cents a day. “And I was also cleaning out the rabbit and rat cages at the pharmacy school, so I was making almost three dollars a day my senior year, which in 1952 wasn’t bad money really.”
He graduated in 1952 and married Martha the same year. But he still had a two-year commitment to serve with the Army, and the U.S. was two years into the Korean War. He spent nine months in Korea and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the field artillery. Faced with a shortage of physicians, Segars said his major informed him that he was to be slotted as a doctor at a battle aid station near the Demilitarized Zone.
“A battle aid station is the first place a soldier goes to if he’s wounded or sick, and it just scared me to death,” said Segars. “I said, ‘But sir, I’m a pharmacist, not a doctor.’ He said, ‘I need somebody up there who knows the difference between an Alka-Seltzer and an aspirin. If I tell you you’re a doctor, you’re a doctor.’”
Luckily, Segars found the aid station was stocked with “old-line medics” who had been in the Army for more than a decade and who provided much of the treatment.
“All I had to do was sign the papers,” he said, but added he learned a lot from the Army surgeons with whom he served. By the time the war ended in mid-1953, he’d had enough of signing papers and decided he was going to enroll in medical school.
After Korea, Segars was transferred to Hawaii for nine months before moving to Nashville so his wife could complete her residency. Then he set his sights on the fledgling School of Medicine at UMMC, which opened in 1955.
Segars began medical school a year after and was in the first four-year class to start and finish in Jackson.
“I had to study a lot because back then they took 100 students in the first year, and at the end of the first year they dropped the 20 students with the lowest grades,” Segars said. “I had been out of college over three years then, so I had to study hard to catch up with the other guys and keep from being dropped.”
He graduated in 1959 and went to Norfolk, Va., for a one-year internship with the U.S. Public Health Service. After bouncing around the country for the better part of a decade, Segars moved one more time before finding his home.
From Physician to Banker
Dr. Kelly Segars visits the Iuka Airport, which he helped to establish in 1964. His involvement with the airport complements his lifelong love of flying.
By the time the Segars family moved to Iuka, they had two sons, Kelly (Scott) Segars II and Mark. A daughter, Leigh Ann, would soon follow. And it wasn’t long before their father was ready to try his hand at a second career.
Iuka had only one bank in 1964, and the nearby town of Belmont also had one, Segars said.
“These two banks had what we called interlocking directorates,” he said. “If you were denied for a loan at the bank in Iuka, than you were automatically denied for a loan in Belmont as well. However, that was later outlawed.”
Furthermore, Segars said, a bank has to have at least 50 percent of its deposits loaned out in order to better serve the community. Sensing an opportunity to meet that need, he applied for a state bank charter but was denied. Then he applied for a national bank charter.
“When John Kennedy was elected President, he wanted to re-energize the economy by starting a bunch of banks,” Segars said. “I called the man he had appointed as the comptroller of currency and told him that I wanted to start a bank in Iuka, so he sent me an application form and I filled them out.”
He was granted the charter and in 1964 opened the First American National Bank of Iuka, which he says was the first national bank to open in Mississippi since the Depression.
First American National Bank of Iuka now has nine offices in four northeast Mississippi counties. But he’s just as proud of the jobs his business has created.
“We have 84 employees now, 50 of those employees being in this county alone.”
Other ventures would soon follow. Segars would buy radio stations, a newspaper and real estate. He negotiated to purchase 43 acres of land near a railroad in Tishomingo County for $1.00 to establish the county’s first industrial park. By 2009, the park was home to four industries and more than 200 jobs.
In 1964, the same year his bank opened, Segars worked with the chairman of the Mississippi Airport Commission to establish the Iuka Airport. The airfield has a 4,000-foot runway now, and there are plans to expand to a mile-long runway. The airfield dovetails with Segars’ love of flying. In fact, he houses his own planes at the airport.
“I have flown just about every kind of single and twin engine airplane at one time or another,” he said. “I took my kids and flew them around the Statue of Liberty at eye level in 1967. You would get shot down if you did that now.”
As if he weren’t busy enough in Iuka, Segars stays connected to UMMC. He was the second chairman of the Guardian Society, which was created in 1975 and has raised millions of dollars for the Medical Center over the years. He also recently established the Segars Family Education Loan Fund. Established with a $25,000 donation, the endowment provides loans to students and doesn’t require payment until six months after a student graduates.
Segars, who borrowed money to go to pharmacy school, says he’s not a great proponent of scholarships but wanted to help future students pay for school.
“Scholarships serve a purpose, but I think if you really want to go to school and you don’t have the money, you should borrow the money because it teaches responsibility,” he said.
The Segars live on a little farm just outside of town, where he and his children raised cattle while growing up because he wanted them to know what hard work was.
“I learned a lot about farming,” Mark Segars admitted. “We learned to cut hay, rake hay, plant cotton, raise cattle and even pigs.”
Both Mark Segars and his sister Leigh Ann studied law instead of medicine. Leigh Ann is an attorney in Florida. After 18 years in private practice, Mark is now the in-house counsel at his father’s bank.
“It’s a family enterprise, and I wanted to be involved with it,” he said. “I never felt like I was cut out for medicine.”
Kelly Segars’ firstborn, Scott, followed him into the medical profession. In 1982, Segars left the group practice he’d been with for 18 years and opened the Segars Clinic, the same year Scott Segars graduated from the Medical Center. Scott did a year of residency training in Memphis, then two years in Salt Lake City before joining the Segars Clinic in 1985.
“I saw it as a good way to help people, especially in a small town,” Scott said. “Small-town doctors are becoming scarce.”
He said working with his father made for an easy transition into the working world. Since Kelly Segars retired in 2003, Scott has had to shoulder more responsibility.
“I’m not the businessman he is, so that was a little challenging. But we have an office manager who’s been here a long time and is very knowledgeable.”
He says the main lesson he learned from his father is to always treat patients like they’re family.
Kelly Segars credits much of the family’s success to his wife, Martha, who worked 26 years as a part-time dietitian and studied architecture in her spare time.
“My wife was very talented and she designed and helped build the house. She also designed the current bank building.”
Although retired from medicine, Segars still serves as president of his bank. It’s enough to keep him involved but affords him more time to spend with his wife.
The pair keeps young by traveling; Segars says they have visited every state in the U.S., plus Mexico and Canada. Even at his age, Segars still doesn’t slow down for much.
“I retired from practice when I was 73, and I’m now 81,” he said. “I worked about 80 hours a week, trying to run both the clinic and the bank. My wife said, ‘Do you realize you have been working 80 hours a week for 35 years?’ I said, ‘Well, things needed to be done.’”