In 2023, GSMA celebrates its 70th year of continuous operations supporting Great Smoky Mountains National Park—a major milestone that has us looking back to chart the evolution of the organization and the work it has accomplished over that time. An interview with the late Terry Maddox along with Steve Kemp and Kent Cave in the fall of 2022 provided the material for this and other articles celebrating GSMA’s 70th anniversary that appear in the special spring 2023 edition of Smokies Life.
When Terry Maddox accepted our invitation to be part of an interview looking back at his time as executive director of GSMA, I could not have imagined it would be the last opportunity we had to reminisce with our organization’s former leader. Maddox kindly offered his home to host the gathering that also included his longtime colleagues Steve Kemp and Kent Cave, three figures whose close working relationship and skillful collaboration left behind an impressive legacy.
Gathering at Maddox’s home, the past leaders spent an afternoon engaged in conversation on the backyard patio, surrounded by the beautiful native plants Maddox was so fond of. GSMA Lead Editor Aaron Searcy directed the interview, and together he and I observed the trio’s easy comradery, even several years removed from their working partnership.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of an enduring relationship between GSMA and NPS, one that has been fortified by the accomplishments of Maddox, Kemp, and Cave. The trio worked together during an important era of growth from the 1990s to the mid-2010s, a period of dramatic achievements for GSMA, opening new stores, building visitor centers, contributing to major park projects, producing award-winning publications, and greatly expanding the ranks of its members and employees.
When Maddox became GSMA’s executive director in 1990, he put his administrative and management expertise to work transforming the nonprofit into a more effective organization. “One of my goals,” Maddox said, “was to get this association from being run like a large mom-and-pop into running it like a business . . . building a modern organization.”
As Kemp recalled, Maddox tackled the challenge wholeheartedly, staying at his office late most nights reading every paper and file he could find to get up to speed. The next several years under Maddox’s leadership brought an evolution in GSMA’s mission, shifting from an interpretive focus to a commitment that benefitted all park divisions: generating revenue for projects not covered by the park’s limited budget.
Among those projects, Cave described the 1999 expansion of Sugarlands Visitor Center as “a stellar example of partnerships” with GSMA paying for the remodel, the largest single project the nonprofit had completed in its history to that point.
The reworked Sugarlands floor plan and enlarged store were an incredible success. “We picked up the same merchandise after we closed and moved it from one room to the other, and sales went up the next day,” Kemp said. “It was just incredible.”
The Sugarlands expansion was later eclipsed by another visitor center project—the construction of a new facility at Oconaluftee, which opened in 2011. As a native Tar Heel, Maddox was especially proud of the 100-percent-partner-funded project in his home state. “It was a travesty that there was a park this big, with half the park in the state of North Carolina, and up until that point, there was never a building built to be the visitor center to the North Carolina entrance to the park,” Maddox said. The structure used as the old visitor center had been built as a small courtroom, he explained, not a place to welcome and orient park visitors.
GSMA secured a $2.2-million loan to complete the construction, but what happened next was quite a surprise. “As it turned out,” Maddox said, “we wound up with a wonderful anonymous donor who paid for that as a donation, but we had not expected that when we made that commitment.” Following the completion of the state-of-the-art facility, visitation jumped 41 percent at the location, and the facility received a Gold Level LEED certification recognizing its green construction and design.
“I see the Oconaluftee Visitor Center as the culmination of the 75th park anniversary,” said Cave, “because it was announced and we broke ground during that celebration. I think that whole 75th anniversary celebration was a big success.”
Working in important interpretive roles for GSMNP, Cave was a constant collaborator with GSMA. As a grad student in the 1970s, he had worked on park projects funded by the nonprofit before a career with NPS took him away from the Smokies. Cave returned in 1997 and served as supervisory park ranger and interpretive media branch chief, working alongside Kemp and Maddox for 17 years.
“I came in as a park ranger primarily devoted to working with the association,” Cave said. “I was a little apprehensive about it. I didn’t know a lot about the internal workings of this association. . . As it turned out, it was one of the most fulfilling parts of my career.”
The expansion of GSMA’s publications program around 2001 was another major milestone for the nonprofit. Among Cave’s many responsibilities was as NPS reviewer for these publications. Kemp, who came on board with GSMA in 1987 and rose to the position of interpretive products and services director, played a vital role in that development, but he gave Cave and Maddox much credit for their roles as well.
“With Kent, we had both an expert on Southern Appalachian history, but also a career park service person who had been in the Smokies since 1975. Think what an asset that was . . . Plus a sense of humor. So, you always had a few quick jokes when you’d drop off a 600-page manuscript and slink away,” Kemp said.
“And Terry was always very supportive of publishing, which is kind of unusual,” said Kemp. “Usually, business people on his side look at publishing like ‘Eh, this is okay . . . If we just focused on selling merchandise at the store and generating more cash, things would be a lot simpler.’ . . .But Terry was always 100 percent supportive of publishing.”
GSMA’s robust publications program has grown to an impressive library of publications that benefit the park and its visitors and continues to be recognized among nonprofit public lands organizations, just part of Kemp, Cave, and Maddox’s significant legacy.
“I think we knew we had something special here,” said Maddox. “The stars aligned to have people who really were complimentary to one another, and we all got the big picture and really worked well together.”