By JILL INGRAM MA ’08
As an elementary school student at the now-shuttered St. Benedict the Moor Catholic School in Winston-Salem, young Geno Segers ’92 had a nemesis. Sister Margaret, a nun, dogged the child, called him names, and assured him he would amount to nothing.
For a time, it appeared Margaret might be right. “When I was growing up, we didn’t have that much,” said Segers, who since 2010 has acted on the Disney XD sitcom “Pair of Kings.” Segers was a preschooler when his parents divorced, and his mother, busy with work and two young children, “didn’t really have time to assess what was going on with me in school. I was sort of just falling through the cracks,” he said.
Segers’ mother, Sandra Segers Eldridge, chuckles at the memory of Margaret. “She didn’t have a whole lot of faith in him,” Eldridge said. “He was such a bad kid in school. I had to go up to that school sometimes twice a week. He was always in trouble.” Segers’ mother – and Margaret, it would later become clear – understood that the young man had loads of potential.
Segers was content to coast for years, but around the time he was 15, with his mother’s encouragement and warnings that, as black youth, Segers and his brother, Dominic, were statistically at risk of dropping out or becoming fathers too young, he began to improve academically. He went from earning high D’s and low C’s to achieving a place on the honor roll. Always athletic, he earned two state high school wrestling championships. And with each achievement, Segers made certain to keep Sister Margaret apprised, mailing her copies of awards and newspaper clippings and often scribbling, “Nothing, ha!” across the top. “I sent a whole bunch of stuff to Sister Margaret,” Segers said.
In 1992, fresh from graduation at Western Carolina, Segers marched to the monastery door armed with a copy of his diploma and praying that Sister Margaret would answer. Instead, he was greeted by Sister Patrice with the news that Margaret had recently died. (“She knew I was coming,” Segers now jokes.) Motioning him inside, Sister Patrice guided Segers down the hall to Margaret’s room, where his years of mailings were posted on the wall.
“All she wanted to do was motivate me,” Segers said. “Even though I couldn’t read, even though I wasn’t listening in class, even though I wasn’t doing anything with myself, she saw in me something that I didn’t see in myself.” Margaret, Segers came to understand, recognized a bright but unmotivated little boy and “put herself in the place of me needing to try to prove her wrong.”
The story of Margaret, polished over the years, was one he shared last fall with fifth- through eighth-grade students at Fairview School in Sylva. Sister Margaret inspired in him a desire to motivate children to make better decisions in life, he said, which led to his founding the Hold It On the Road Foundation, based in Winston-Salem, shortly after landing his “Pair of Kings” role. Through Hold it On the Road (an old saying that means “be safe, stay on the right track and make good decisions), Segers speaks to groups of children, sharing stories from his eclectic life in athletics and acting in an effort to influence informed decision making.
“He was a winner for us,” said Carolyn Pannell ’82 MAEd ’85 EdS ’92, principal at Fairview School, who was delighted that Segers advocates reading and good choices and speaks highly of his experiences at WCU, which she considers a smart choice for regional children to pursue higher education. Rising eighth-grader Isaiah Prather watches “Pair of Kings” and was inspired by the talk. “I always wanted to push myself, but I never had the chance to do it,” Prather said. “I think I could try to be like him.”
Lonnie G. “Geno” Segers Jr., 45, was born and grew up in Winston-Salem, the son of Sandra Segers Eldridge and the late Lonnie G. Segers Sr., who died in 2010. He has always been close with his family, including brother Dominic, younger by three years and three days, and seems to draw those around him even closer. When family gatherings were planned, relatives would call the house asking if Geno planned to attend. “He was always the one who would make everyone laugh,” his mother recalls. On trips home from those reunions, he would have “everyone on the floor in the middle of the bus laughing,” she said. If he heard a voice just one time, he could imitate it. “He could imitate my mother,” Eldridge said. As for her son’s natural voice, a distinctive, rich and mellow bass, his mother hasn’t a clue where that came from. “To this day, I don’t know. His dad’s voice was heavy, but nothing like Geno’s. My family’s is nothing like Geno’s. I always say it’s God-given.”
Perhaps also God-given is Segers’ talent for athletics. In addition to the wrestling, he participated in high school football and track. After graduating from East Forsyth High School, he attended WCU on a full scholarship. His Catamount career, from 1985-88, under coach Bob Waters and assistant coach Bobby Setzer ’57 MAEd ’61, was very successful. As a defensive end he garnered three All-Southern Conference selections, including first team in 1988, the same year that The Sports Network named him a first-team all-American selection. He still has a place in the WCU record books for quarterback sacks and tackles for loss.
“I just remember him as one of those guys who always played hard and always practiced hard but wasn’t all business,” said WCU athletic equipment manager Mike Taylor, who was a student equipment manager when Segers played. “He would laugh and joke – he was a good teammate. He was one of those guys … who would yell for other guys. He always gave a lot more than your average guy. He wasn’t just out for himself.” As for the voice: “His Bobby Setzer imitation is outstanding. It’s like talking to Bobby Setzer.”
Segers’ favorite sport, football, has been a fickle friend. He loves the game – has loved it since he was a child, but as he told the children at Fairview, football never loved anybody. WCU and Livingstone College, a small, private institution in Salisbury, were the only two schools to offer him scholarships. Now a steadfast Catamount fan who checks in with Taylor for team updates and returns as often as he can for games, Segers initially didn’t think much of his options. Dreading Cullowhee’s rural location and cold weather, he gritted his teeth and committed. “What I learned from Western is that, if I can make it at Western, I can make it anywhere,” Segers now says. Segers left school without a degree and with the dream of playing football at the top level. But even at 6 feet 4 inches tall and closing in on 300 pounds, ultimately he proved a little too small and a little too slow. “I never got the chance to go to the NFL, and I was very bitter about it for a long time,” Segers said.
But Segers did build a career for himself as an athlete, first playing minor league football in Charlotte. After wrapping up his degree, he took a crack at professional rugby, sumo wrestling, cliff diving and full-contact wrestling. His adventures took him to New Zealand, where he married and had a son (he and his child’s mother have since parted) and where he was living in the mid-2000s and operating several small businesses when, finally, he put his voice to work doing radio advertisements. Despite having no stage experience, an audition earned him a role in the Australian production of “The Lion King.” His mother was incredulous at the news. “When he told me he got a part in ‘The Lion King,’ I said, ‘You can imitate, but you can’t really sing.’ We never thought he could actually sing!” she said.
But Segers can sing, and he went on to perform the role of Mufasa, the Lion King’s father, in Australia, China and North America. Watching him perform for the first time, his mother cried. “He was so good,” she said. “I was so amazed. I never knew he could sing like that.” Segers was delighted. “I had a blast. I never knew that this opportunity could be exploited by me – someone who wasn’t a singer, someone who wasn’t an actor, someone who never had any experience, any training, anything,” Segers said. “It was really just an opportunity that I picked up and ran with.” The stage set Segers on a new path. At Fairview, he shared with the students his overwhelming emotion at hearing his singing voice without a microphone during a performance of “Little Shop of Horrors” at New York’s City Center.
With his large frame, dark curly hair, warm eyes, infectious humor and booming voice, Segers is an attractive, engaging man. Considering his lifelong love of entertaining people through sport, a transition into acting makes perfect sense. And as he told the Winston-Salem Journal in 2010, “My father always encouraged me to do something in the arts.”
Segers had returned to New Zealand after “The Lion King” and was considering his next step when he received a request to send in a reel for a new TV show, “Pair of Kings.” Segers hesitated because he didn’t want to finance the reel. Ultimately he thought better of it. The breakdown requested “a guy who was tall, but not too tall; big, not fat; spoke like James Earl Jones but looked like the Rock,” Segers told the Sioux City Journal in 2010. Realization struck: “They were asking for Geno.” And so they were. “When we got the tape on Geno and he started talking, we knew,” the show’s executive producers, Dan Cross and David Hoge, said in an email message. “It’s not often you can get a big, burly, good- looking guy who can act, be playful, but still feel like a father figure all in one. Geno is that guy. He fits perfect on the island and perfect with our cast.”
“Pair of Kings,” targeted toward a young audience, premiered in September 2010 starring Disney kids Mitchel Musso of “Hannah Montana” fame and Doc Shaw of “The Suite Life on Deck” as fraternal twins who unexpectedly find themselves kings of a Pacific island nation. As Mason, the royal adviser, Segers (whose ethnicity also includes American Indian and French) brings “a larger than life presence” to the show physically and metaphorically, said Hoge and Cross. “His voice, appearance and attitude give off that sense of control and security. Yes, that’s what the character Mason is all about, but so is Geno. And that’s why it’s a perfect fit. He’s an anchor to our series.”
Now making his home in Los Angeles, Segers holds himself as an adult example on set. “I try really hard to affect [the younger actors] positively. We have probably one of the most drama-free sets in Hollywood. The kids are very nice. It’s a very caring and loving environment, and everyone’s working to make ‘Pair of Kings’ the best that it can be.” The show did experience drama when Musso, 20, was arrested in October 2011 on charges of driving under the influence. Disney removed him from the show and replaced him with another actor for the third season, set to premiere this summer. Even before Musso’s arrest, Segers spoke of potential pitfalls awaiting young actors. “Can you imagine yourself at 19 years old with a hundred-thousand-dollar car and an even bigger checking account? Nineteen-year-olds make mistakes without any power at all. Multiply that by every single dollar you have in your checking account,” Segers said. On the set, said Cross and Hoge, “Geno helps bring people back to reality.”
These days, Segers is no longer bitter about football. “I can still run up stairs. I’m quite happy about it now,” he said, noting the damage a pro career would have inflicted on his body. Perhaps the acceptance comes in part from his growing audience and foundation. He considers the two as complementing each other: He wants more children to know his name so he can potentially reach them with his foundation’s positive message. “I’m not a child, but I’m a celebrity to children,” he said. “Parents would be as excited for me to talk with their kids about opportunities as the kids are.” Another Disney gig gave him a hand with that. Segers, along with British TV presenter Laura Hamilton, hosted and narrated two cycles of “Fort Boyard – Ultimate Challenge,” a reality show set on a 19th-century fort off the west coast of France. The show, featuring teams of teens from the USA and UK competing in a series of challenges designed to test their brainpower, courage and teamwork, was “very much in line with my foundation’s efforts in the community to try to get [youth] to face challenges in life,” Segers said.
Sister Margaret would approve.