From the April 2016 issue of The Rotarian
America’s most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains, is a half-million acres of temperate forest bristling with biodiversity – as 30 species of salamanders and some 1,500 black bears attest. Yet the contours of the park, in Tennessee and North Carolina in nearly equal measures, might have been drawn differently if not for several members of the Rotary Club of Knoxville, Tenn., a role the club marked during its centennial celebration last August.
In 1915, David C. Chapman, the owner of a wholesale drug company and a veteran of the Spanish-American War, brought together 10 business leaders over lunch, and the club’s illustrious future was set. Eight years later, Anne Davis, who with her Rotarian husband, Willis, had just visited parks in the American West, asked club members, “Why can’t we have a national park in the Smokies?” The Davises got Chapman on board. Heartened by the National Park Service’s recommendation to situate a park in the Southeast, Chapman transformed an idea into action.
“That was the spark that ignited” the endeavor, says Steve Cotham, a historian and author of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Arcadia Publishing, 2006). Tennessee and North Carolina established commissions to promote their parochial interests. But the gregarious Chapman, backed by the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association – of which more than 80 percent of the members who were from Knoxville were Rotarians – scrapped with the entrenched logging interests and thousands of other landowners, and, perhaps most important, corralled politicians into his corner.
“Chapman was all about PR and politics and doing what you needed to do to accomplish this,” Cotham says. “He became so devoted to it that he spent most of his energies pushing the park forward, from around 1924 up through 1934, when it was confirmed that it had achieved enough land,” after a $5 million matching pledge from a fund founded by financier-philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Sr. The park was dedicated in 1940. A stretch of the main city-to-park thoroughfare and a 6,417-foot mountain in the park bear Chapman’s name.
Cotham also credits club member James E. Thompson, a professional photographer whose images of Mount Le Conte left an indelible impression on Park Service officials, for his critical role. Chapman and Thompson trudged on crude trails to pristine spots to take the photographs, which they took to a meeting about the park in Asheville, N.C. “The features of Myrtle Point amazed people,” Cotham says.
Despite their partnership, Chapman and Thompson couldn’t have differed more in temperament, notes Cotham. Thompson was the club’s song leader who maintained a perfect attendance record until his death in 1976. “He was a teetotaler and got razzed by some of the people,” Cotham says. “Chapman was certainly not a teetotaler,” and the Knoxville club frequently put aside seriousness for fraternity-style tomfoolery. Walter T. Pulliam, who assembled the club’s 75th anniversary booklet, writes that in the early days, “there were much hilarity, hand-clapping, and horseplay at the early meetings. Impromptu and unexpected bursts of talk, biscuit battles, verbal clashes, and dousing each other with cold water featured many of the meetings, all in the spirit of fun.”
Decidedly less raucous today, the club is no less fun-loving. With those hills – in drifts of blue and gray cast from the haze of evaporating rainfall – and a rich lore, Knoxville Rotarians knew that in celebrating their club’s first century in 2015, cake and punch wouldn’t do. The club spent $100,000 for a public Rotary Peace Garden at the Knoxville Museum of Art and gave $50,000 to the East Tennessee Historical Society, which houses the club’s trove of documents. During a multiday celebration in late August, the club unveiled a bronze bust of Chapman fabricated by Lajos Bíró, a past president of the twin Rotary Club of Mátészalka, Hungary. (Bíró had created another sculpture, placed in a city park in honor of Rotary’s centennial in 2005, depicting the late PolioPlus chairman and Knoxville Rotarian William T. Sergeant administering polio vaccine to a child.)
The club also hosted a family picnic at the national park, which bore a distinctive Smokies flavor. “There were men with straw hats, many of them wore knickers and suspenders and bow ties, and the ladies wore 1915 dresses,” says Townes Lavidge Osborn, a club past president and one of the prime organizers. With all events, Osborn notes, Rotarians aimed “to leave no trash, therefore we did not use paper, plastic, Styrofoam or aluminum. Even with the picnic we used china plates, glass [and flatware]. We wanted everything to be the way it was circa 1915, and we wanted that to be true throughout the entire centennial week.”
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash, one of the attendees, calls the event “a reminder of what the Smokies is about: highlighting the scenic beauty and the biodiversity. But also we don’t lose the cultural history. The park’s origin came from the leadership of the founding member, Col. Chapman,” Cash says. “That legacy continues to this very day, with numerous projects [in the park] that Rotary has been supporting,” including a display at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the blazing of a disabled-accessible trail, a native plant garden, and, most recently, funds to help refurbish an amphitheater used for ranger talks.
“Our centennial Rotarians are certainly a hardworking group,” says Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. “In its early days, the Rotary Club of Knoxville lobbied for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, the club promotes literacy and sends underprivileged children to art museums and theater, opera, and symphony performances. Knoxville is proud of our Rotarians.”