By Jim Buchanan
Over the course of a lifetime people rooted in a community build relationships with a handful of professionals – dentists and doctors come to mind.
So do pharmacists. A local legend in that profession, Robert “Bob” Douglas Kelley, died last week at the age of 81.
Born in Alabama, Kelley graduated from Samford University School of Pharmacy and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He came to Sylva in 1966 and met his future wife, Betty Jean “Jeannie” Stillwell, when he escorted her in his convertible in Western Carolina College’s homecoming parade.
Kelley purchased Hooper’s Drugstore on Main Street, the oldest pharmacy in town, from Fred Hooper. Hooper’s was opened in 1911 by Dr. D.D. Hooper. Hooper’s became Kel-Save Drugs in 1988 and moved to its present location at the old Potts Brothers Supermarket in part to secure more parking for the thriving business.
For more than a half-century Kelley established a reputation as a keen businessman who cared deeply about his customers, his craft and his community. Known as “The Hardest Working Man in Jackson County,” Kelley was also a booster of local charities such as United Christian Ministries, schools and first responders.
The Herald reached out to readers for their thoughts on Kelley.
Dwight Wiggins wrote, “My wife has been battling cancer and the effects of cancer treatments for the past 16 years. She has suffered a lot and takes several medicines. Mr. Kelley understood that all of her medicines had to be liquid or grindable and always took care of that for her. He even gave me his home phone number and told me to call him anytime that we needed his help.”
“When our neighbor’s little boy was sick,” wrote Tammy Mendenhall, “he opened up so we could get him medicine in the ‘70s. Then in the ‘80s we needed a dehumidifier for my baby and one more time he opened a closed store for this. I will never forget the help he gave my family.”
Kel-Save will remain open, with Jeannie Kelley carrying on the family legacy, owning 100 percent of the business.
Jeannie Kelley said her husband had a keen business vision.
“The formation of the Kountry Kupboard came at a time Bob foresaw a new attitude for natural products and remedies,” she said. “He was a trailblazer.”
Again, Jeannie Kelley said, Bob’s main concern was his customers.
“He helped many people over the years with free medicine and cash loans (usually forgiven by him).”
Carroll Hall, Bob Kelley’s brother-in-law, said “Robert Kelley was first my brother-in-law but he rapidly became my best friend. He entrusted me to help him with his business, and I am honored to carry on with his wishes to see the legacy he built thrive, even in these uncertain times. He treated every customer as they were his friend and that is why people stayed loyal to him over their lifetime.
“Now we must carry on offering that same brand of customer service and helping people just like Bob did all these years. We look forward to keeping his life’s work alive and providing for his/our customers for years to come.”
“As far back as I can remember, my father made it a point to show the people of Sylva he cared,” said Kelley’s daughter, Kristy. “From the late-night drives to deliver prescriptions, to the long hours in the store, my father instilled humility, ethic, and a desire to serve others… During these difficult times, do as Bob Kelley would do: Help your neighbors, take time to laugh with your family, and never forget why you’re working.”