Dr. J. Martin “Marty” Tucker, who learned how to be a physician from some of the state’s best minds, wonders sometimes where he would be today if it weren’t for a two-minute talk with a maintenance man.
Tucker, who was around 19 at the time, was working in a chemical factory while studying at the University of Mississippi, a hardworking pre-med undergraduate musing about the chunk of time he still had left in college, on top of long stretches in medical school and residency – a trainload of years that seemed a “lifetime” to someone his age.
“I wondered aloud if it was worth it,” Tucker said, “and this maintenance man in that factory looked at me and said, ‘Well, when you get up every day, you gotta be doing something.’
“I still think about what he said every day, I believe. He summed up everything in about five words. If you gotta be doing something, then you can either be doing something productive or sitting around watching Sports Center.”
Tucker has always been, and is now, doing something productive as a member of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s affiliate faculty and chair of the Department Obstetrics and Gynecology.
“When Marty and I were in training, the (OB-GYN) department was kind of in its heyday,” said Dr. Richard Rushing, an OB-GYN physician in Brookhaven who has known Tucker for more than 40 years.
“Dr. (Winfred) Wiser was the chair then,” said Rushing, invoking the legendary name attached to UMMC’s Hospital for Women and Infants, “and Marty trained under him. It was a very well-respected department; Marty has that in his DNA.
“He loves what he does, he has the gifts to do it and he has the connections with the faculty and the residents. He has a desire that the department be the best it can possibly be.
Tucker’s decision to become a physician began to brew in Aberdeen, the town where he and his sister grew up. “In high school, if you made good grades, that was what people thought you should do: become a doctor,” he said.
Many thought you should also have a job, good grades or not. One of those people was an accountant in town, who was also his dad. So Tucker sacked groceries at the IGA and mowed yards.
His mom worked hard, too. At 86, she retired from her job at a bank.
“What good parents I had,” Tucker said. “They always wanted what was best for me and my sister. They emphasized education, and that’s what led me to be where I am today.
“I’m proud of my small-town upbringing. Something about growing up there gives you a different outlook on life, a view of the world I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“I also had a nucleus of friends who kind of drove each other to success.” Among them was Northsider Tommy Shepherd, an attorney, who has been Tucker’s friend since they were five.
“I don’t remember my first day in kindergarten,” Shepherd said, “but Marty does. He says I wore a red cowboy hat.” Whatever it was that brought them together, that hat or something else, it has lasted through the years and the miles between Aberdeen and Jackson.
In Aberdeen, they worked at the grocery store together, acted as managers of the high school football team together. Performed the same schoolboy pranks together.
They made the same grades, practically. “Marty was No. 1 in the class when we graduated,” Shepherd said. “I was No. 2.
“On Honors Day our senior year, we had to go all the way back to the ninth grade to figure out who would get the Math Award. I got it, by the way.
In Aberdeen and beyond, Tucker held down other jobs. He was an orderly in a hospital, where he hung IVs and recorded EKGs. In the Hamilton community near Aberdeen, he was a laborer in the chemical factory where the light of the maintenance man’s wisdom rearranged the substance of Tucker’s misgivings, so to speak.
Tucker was moved to persevere, which he did through college, medical school – Class of 1984 – and into his residency at UMMC, a rich vein of mentors such as Wiser, Dr. John Morrison, Dr. James Martin Jr., Dr. Rodney Meeks and Dr. Mitch Rivlin.
“We didn’t call it mentorship then,” Tucker said. “They were just good doctors who taught us the right way to treat people.”
One of the first to teach him that had been a physician who delivered his sister when she was born, in 1964: Dr. Richard Hollis, one of the first OB-GYN’s to return to north Mississippi and practice there, Tucker said. And the first, perhaps, whose gifts inspired Tucker to become an obstetrician.
“The appeal to me of OB-GYN, especially OB, was being able to take care of people, basically, their whole lives,” Tucker said.
In order to enrich his ability to do so, he pursued a fellowship in maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I saw at that time – this was the 1980s – that OB-GYN was transitioning into more specialty care,” he said. “There was this next level of expectation.”
Over the years, Tucker has spread his bona fides to St. Dominic Hospital, Jackson Healthcare for Women and Merit Health Woman’s Hospital, and, earlier, at UMMC, rising to the rank of clinical professor of OB-GYN there in 2011.
He has been a leader for organizations well beyond those hospitals’ borders – namely, the Mississippi Infant Mortality Task Force and the Mississippi State Medical Association.
In 2018 Tucker received the Distinguished Medical Alumnus Award. His acceptance speech was sprinkled with salutes to his maintenance-man mentor and, especially, to his family and wife Robin, a 1983 graduate of UMMC’s School of Nursing.
“This award belongs to her more than me,” he said.
The couple has four daughters: Clara Beth Tucker, a nurse; Sarah Martin Tucker, a CPA; Dr. Mary Grace Sessums; and Dr. Ann Tucker.
Whenever Tucker is able to wrangle some time away from his professional life, his private life is often spent with them. He also likes to travel, do some deer hunting and, particularly, track down turkeys. “If I could do anything I wanted to tomorrow, and it was in season, that would be it,” he said.
But perhaps the hunt he ponders most is the search for solutions to Mississippi’s enduring health burdens, particularly its bottom-of-the-list rankings in low birthweight, infant mortality and more.
“Those statewide statistics haven’t changed in my lifetime,” said Tucker, who, in this regard, feels personally challenged by the phrase, “thank God for Mississippi.”
“I’ve heard that at professional meetings, even in Louisiana,” he said.
“My dream would be to sit in that same meeting one day and hear someone say, ‘thank God for fill-in-the-blank.’ And for Mississippi to be, not just off the bottom of the list, but near the top.
“Success and helping people – that should be our goal every day.”