Interesting People We Met in 2016

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Cassius Cash

It’s been a little more than a year since Cash took the helm of the GSMNP, the most popular national park in the country, a position his calls a “dream job.” He’s also the park’s first African-American superintendent, no small feat in a park system that employs only about two dozen minority superintendents overseeing its 410 units. His is an unlikely story that took a turn in college, when he landed an internship with the Forest Service, and over the past year he says he’s been surprised to learn the power of his story in connecting with people like himself: some minority, some inner-city, some just not given the opportunity to visit national parks and experience their allure. He thinks more people of different backgrounds would and should enjoy the woods that he’s come to love and has built a career on, and that’s the crux of his focus on the future…

Beyond his lofty goals of inspiring the next generation to love and support this park, Cash must also deal with his daily administrative duties and management of the park, overseeing its varied resources, hundreds of employees, and thousands of volunteers. It’s a constant balancing act of being both welcoming and prudent, accessible to millions of visitors yet accountable for protecting and promoting its natural splendor. If the Smokies were a bona-fide city, he’d be its 16th mayor.
—Clay Duda, April 14

Update: Cash was tested during the tragic Chimney Tops fire this fall that sparked a firestorm in Gatlinburg, killing 14 and destroying more tan 2,400 buildings. Some have questioned whether Cash should have pushed the National Park Service for more resources to fight the fire more aggressively in its early days. Last week a federal fire-fighting command post was pulled out and the national park was put back in charge of handling the final vestiges of the fire. Cash is now left in charge of cleaning up debris, rebuilding trails and possibly rethinking the park’s approach to wildfire prevention in the years to come.

Clay Duda

Trae Crowder

Trae Crowder

Oak Ridge comic Trae Crowder catapulted to social media stardom after his “Liberal Redneck” videos went viral. Upwards of 21 million people on Facebook alone have watched his breakout two-minute commentary railing against conservatives who want to control bathroom access for transgender people. (“Quit being a pussy and say what you mean: You’re freaked out,” he railed.)

The early videos didn’t even include Crowder’s name, and many who watched didn’t realize he was a comedian (although he really does have those opinions and talk like that). Yet the exposure launched his first comedy tour. Its initial leg is selling out through Southern cities, culminating in a show at the Grove Theater in Oak Ridge…

His profanity-laced manifestos have covered not only LGBT rights but also topics like Tennessee trying to designate the Bible the “state book” and Ted Cruz’s exit from the presidential race. (More election commentary to come, Crowder promises.) Shot on his cell phone, Crowder’s rants are an unexpected juxtaposition, which is incidentally one of the building blocks of comedy: Here’s a guy who looks, sounds, and acts like what you’d expect from a redneck, firing off opinions you’d expect from an educated liberal.

Which is what he is.

Well, he’s both.

Things you don’t know about the Liberal Redneck: He has an MBA. He manages engineering, utility, and construction contracts in a conservative workplace where button-up shirts are the norm and cursing is not. (He tries to keep his political views separate from his work environment, and asked us not to name his employer.) But he gets pretty het up if you question whether he’s a “real redneck.”

Perhaps what’s so shocking is that this is so shocking. Why can’t a redneck be a liberal? And can this liberal redneck do anything to change those rules?
—S. Heather Duncan, May 26

Update: Crowder and his touring comedy team of Drew Morgan and Corey Forrester sold out shows across the country all year and this summer published a book called The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: Draggin’ Dixie Outta the Dark. It only half-jokingly described the viewpoint of white rural Southerners abandoned by liberals, a premise that proved disturbingly prescient after the presidential election. Earlier this month, reported that Fox is buying a single-camera sitcom starring Crowder based on his liberal redneck character returning to his conservative Tennessee hometown to start a job at an energy research facility, with his California-born wife in tow.

Clay Duda

Remote Area Medical founder Stan Brock stands in front of his cowboy gear, which now sits in front of his office near Knoxville.

Stan Brock

You’d be hard pressed to find Stan Brock somewhere else besides the 55,000-square-foot campus of Remote Area Medical headquarters in Rockford near Old Knoxville Highway. If he’s not here in East Tennessee, he’s likely out somewhere offering help—Guyana, Haiti, Baton Rouge, or some hollow in rural Appalachia—directing the latest batch of volunteers on a disaster relief mission, or helping lead pop-up clinics to provide free medical care to America’s uninsured.

Today, he’s in the corner parking lot of RAM HQ in his trademark safari gear, matching khaki pants and shirt, with RAM logos fixed above his breast pockets and on his shoulder straps. His silver hair is slicked back and well manicured, accenting the imposing demeanor he was known for as co-host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in the 1960s. He’s looking over a newly purchased pull-behind trailer, one RAM volunteers will help retrofit to serve as a mobile command center during future disaster-relief operations, like the one volunteers are at now in Baton Rouge after flood water inundated parts of the city and some surrounding parishes.

For the past three decades, Brock has devoted most every waking hour to helping RAM and its mission; from navigating red tape and regulations, to get volunteers on the ground, to volunteering himself and coordinating its latest relief efforts. Now in his 80th year, Brock shows no signs of slowing down.
—Clay Duda, Sept. 15

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