TUPELO • Dr. James Henry Neely and Dr. John Pascal Elliott Jr., two legendary doctors who changed the Northeast Mississippi community within both the medical field and as community leaders, passed away last week.
Both men started practicing in Tupelo the same year – 1964 – and passed away within one day of each other, with Neely passing June 23 at the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford and Elliott passing June 24 at his Tupelo residence. Loved ones and colleagues remember them as great doctors and better men.
Brian Neely remembers his father as someone who “always believed everyone was equal under God.” Born in West Point in 1932, James Neely would break down many barriers within his lifetime. He would be one of the first Black doctors to have privileges at the North Mississippi Medical Center, opening the doors for many other Black doctors in the area. He came to the Tupelo area in 1964 after Dr. Walter Zuber, believed to be the first Black physician in Tupelo, asked him to open a practice so that Tupelo wouldn’t be without a Black doctor. Brian Neely said his father insisted on being allowed the same access as white doctors if he was going to practice in Tupelo.
“That’s just how my dad was. He wasn’t going to accept second class status from anybody. He wouldn’t accept second class status for his patients, he wouldn’t accept second class status for the members of his community, anybody,” Brian Neely said.
A brilliant doctor, James Neely received patients of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, and his patients trusted him fiercely. Former colleague Dr. C.K. White, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and past chief medical officer for North Mississippi Health Services, remembers James Neely as someone who served patients regardless of if they could pay. The two men had a running joke about how often when James Neely sent patients to White, patients would still follow up with Neely to receive his professional opinion.
“That was the kind of trust they had. His patients loved him to death and believed every word he said, and that’s what a true doctor does. They establish a rapport that is above and beyond,” White said.
Carol Elliott remembers her husband as someone whose word you could trust. John Elliott loved his patients, and he was a man who accomplished most of what he put his mind to. He was born in Columbus in 1933 and would meet his future wife in New Orleans while interning and serving at the Touro Infirmary. The two met on a blind date, but afterwards they didn’t date anyone else, marrying in June of 1957 after meeting in October. Carol Elliot said John was a good dad, taking three of his grandchildren on mission trips, and someone who did the right thing because it was needed. As a surgeon, he always put his patients first, making sure they only received the best care.
“Whatever he decided to do, he went at it 100 percent and a little bit more. He never did anything halfway,” Carol Elliott said. “Anything he ever did, he took his time, he made sure it was done right”
John and Carol founded the Sanctuary Hospice after John returned from a mission trip in Mexico City. It was his idea to call it Sanctuary, but it wasn’t the only place he was involved in, also being instrumental with the Good Samaritan Clinic and serving the Salvation Army. A devout lover of Mississippi State, he served on the foundation board and the College of Arts and Sciences Board. The family gave scholarships based on need rather than academic achievements. White remembers John Elliott inviting other medical professionals to volunteer, and he describes John Elliott as encouraging others to give back.
“His legacy would be one of sharing whatever gifts you have with others, with the community. He was a gifted writer. He was a very insightful, smart man,” White said. “... I think his subtleties are the way he taught things by example. You saw how he acted and you wanted to emulate that.”
Dr. Barney Guyton, a retired gastroenterologist who worked with both John Elliott and James Neely, remembers working with and sharing patients with both men. White remembers both James Neely and John Elliott as being mentors for him. When he joined the NMMC staff in 1982, he remembers James Neely took the time to give him advice, and John Elliott was always willing to help. He also recalls them as “true physicians in the truest sense” for being community oriented even outside of the medical field, exemplifying “Tupelo Spirit,” White said.
Both were involved with NMMC, and NMHS President/CEO Shane Spees gave the following statement about Dr. James Henry Neely and Dr. John Elliott:
“The northeast Mississippi community sadly lost two legendary medical professionals, Dr. James Henry Neely and Dr. John Elliott, both of which passed away last week. Each created his own legacy, which will be with us for many years to come. Dr. Neely was the first black physician to join the North Mississippi Medical Center medical staff. In addition, he was very involved in community organizations throughout our region. Dr. John Elliott was the first urologist to practice at NMMC Tupelo, giving birth to the region’s largest urological practice and service. He, too, was engaged in our community and a strong supporter of improving the quality of life for north Mississippians. While both physicians will be missed, their impact on the communities they served will last for many more years.”
James Neely was a Renaissance Man, according to his son: he spoke several languages and travelled, and he never made a B in his entire life. Medicine was his hobby, and he provided 24/7 service for 40 years. He still offered home visits long after others had stopped, and it wasn’t uncommon for James Neely to treat patients at his home or go answer calls in the wee hours of the morning. He loved Mississippi and turned down a lucrative offer to practice in Los Angeles because he was committed to his community, Brian Neely said. James Neely and his wife, Elaine, were a team who believed in excellence and encouraged their children to do their best to contribute to the community. The two met in high school.
James Neely retired from the medical field in 1999. He was a United States Air Force veteran, member of Trinity United Presbyterian Church in West Point, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity and life member of the NAACP. He had various memberships is other organizations such as the The National Medical Association and The Black Business Association of Mississippi, and was involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Boys Scouts of America, Tupelo UNCF, Good Samaritan Health Services and St. Paul Outreach Boys Home. He received several awards throughout his life, including being named Mississippi Medical and Surgical Award – Practitioner of the Year in 1982, the Black Business Association Legend Award for Outstanding Community Service in 1999, and the Committee for King Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – Drum Major Award in 2001. His obit lists his greatest accomplishment as being married to Elaine for 66 years.
John Elliott was a man of many hobbies. He was active, playing tennis, golfing, and jogging everyday. He participated in the Boston Marathon and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He went on mission trips, loved reading and gardened, planting several hundred tulips each year. He was instrumental in helping NMMC get a nursing school and wellness center, using his position on the executive board of NMMC and the NMMC Foundation to speak up for the need for both. He wrote “about everything,” Carol Elliott said, writing several books. Among published books are “All the Piety and Wit,” “Morning Report,” “Chalkhill,” and “Trampled Ground.” Additionally, he wrote and published countless professional papers in the Southern and American Journals of Medicine.
Carol Elliott still finds letters and other things he writes and said he even wrote his own obituary four years ago in his own, dry humor, which started off:
“I start the preparation for my memorial in October of 2016. Death was not imminent, though you never know. I would like the service to be a celebration of life, a happy evening of memorable events, sometime in the far, distant future. Thanks to all who have participated, including me. You could never have done it without me.”
John Elliott retired from the medical field in 1997. He was an involved member of the St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo, volunteering constantly. Even though he was only a Park and Recreation coach for three years, Carol Elliott said several have reached out to talk about the impact her husband had on them. He was a member of the American and Mississippi Medical Associations. Aside from servicing on NMMC boards, John Elliott was also chief of staff in 1969 and chief of surgery in 1974-1975. He served on several boards, including the Salvation Army and Sanctuary Hospice, and was named MSU’s Alumnus of the Year in 1996.
John Elliott is survived by his wife, Carol, and their children, John Pascal Elliot III (Leslie) of Jackson, Mary Margaret Cox (Brent) of League City, Texas, and Kathryn Ann Lake (Chris) of Austin, Texas.
While people can see his legacy in the organizations he supported and helped start, Carol Elliott said the harder part is getting people to remember him as a person who was good, kind and honest. She described him as a planner and funny and said they had a good life.
“He was a unique person. He really was. I am just a better person because I knew him, and I was married to him,” Carol Elliott said.
Brian Neely hopes his father is recognized for his achievements. He remembers his father as having a bubbling personality and being committed to community, equality and justice. He personally would like to see the city recognize his father by naming the Front Street Park after him to recognize his contributions to the community, and hopes the community can take away the message of unity.
“My dad loved all people, and what he would want for our community, for our state and for our nation is for us to come together because he always understand and he taught us (is) that, especially here in Mississippi, we have so much more in common with each other than we have differences,” Brian Neely said. “He would tell us to take a step back and look at each other and look how close we are to each other as far as our values, as far as our hopes, our dreams. He would want us to come together as a community and start seeing what we have in common as opposed to what divides us.”
James Neely is survived by wife Elaine, son Brian Henry (Shari) Neely of Tupelo, and daughter Patricia Elaine (James) Dorsey of Saltillo.