“Stories permeate every aspect of our lives”

Park to bear name of ISC founder
Published in Herald & Tribune Dec. 18, 2014 issue

 A man born right outside of Jonesborough in the Dry Creek, Lamar area was recently recognized by the Town of Jonesborough for his contributions as mayor, as well as for being the founder of the National Storytelling Festival.

In a meeting on Dec. 8, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously approved renaming Storytelling Park as the new Jimmy Neil Smith Park.

“I was surprised first of all,” said Smith, who is also the former president of the International Storytelling Center. “After the shock, I obviously had a great sense of honor and pride. I never thought about a park being named after me, but a park is a beautiful thing.”

The park is located directly behind the International Storytelling Center.

The park is located directly behind the International Storytelling Center.

He said the park, which he had a hand in making happen through funding and work with the designer, is a special park in Jonesborough.

“It’s very attractive and very welcoming,” Smith said. “It’s a good location for activities.”

Mayor Kelly Wolfe said when the Town of Jonesborough acquired the storytelling building, they also acquired part of the Storytelling Park. He said in that acquisition, he made sure the negotiations for the naming rights of the new town park would be reserved for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

“It has been on my mind for quite some time,” Wolfe said during the meeting. “We as a town should honor the life’s work of another resident, and that is Mr. Jimmy Neil Smith.”

That honor is in part for his work in founding the National Storytelling Festival more than 40 years ago.

Wolfe said when town officials were applying for various grants and seeking various programs through the state legislature, they had a business analysis done to talk about the economic impact of the National Storytelling Festival. That analysis revealed that the festival has a $10 million annual economic impact on the area.

“You think about the power of storytelling and you think about how it relates to all of us on the most basic level. Your kids learn about who they are by the stories we tell at the dinner table. Grandparents pass on things that they have learned to their grandchildren through stories of what life was like growing up. We are entertained through stories,” Wolfe said. “Stories involve music; stories permeate every aspect of our lives. Jimmy was somebody many, many years ago who had the wisdom to capture that basic art of our humanity and bring it to Jonesborough and stake claim to it and make us the Storytelling Capital of the World.”

He told the board that he thought it was fitting to name the park in honor of Smith, especially considering the proximity of the park right next to the International Storytelling Center.

Wolfe said he would like to proceed in appointing a mayor’s Special Studies Committee to bring back recommendations on the most fitting way to honor Smith in the park, possibly with a statue.

“We would put a group together that would aggressively tackle this issue and come back to you with all the questions answered and monies needed,” he said.

When Smith was 2 years old, his father, who was a school teacher at the time, was elected superintendent of schools, which brought his family out of the Lamar area and into Jonesborough. He attended Jonesborough Elementary School and Jonesborough High School, as well as East Tennessee State University for a degree in journalism.

“I started working at the Herald & Tribune when I was 17 and became immediately interested in media. (I) then went on to report for the Johnson City Press and I did several different areas,” Smith said, adding that he worked on a history column that was well received.

When he graduated from ETSU, he began teaching at Science Hill where he spent half of his day devoted to teaching journalism and the other half developing a communication program to let the community know what was happening in the school.

Science Hill had a “nice tabloid newspaper” that was printed at the Elizabethton Star. On one of those trips, Smith and the students were listening to Jerry Clower on the radio.

“Jerry Clower was a humorous country comedian storyteller and he was telling one of his very funny stories,” Smith said. “We were all laughing and enjoying that story.”

At that moment, he turned to the students and said wouldn’t it be nice to bring people like Clower to Jonesborough to tell stories. The students did not give much of a response.

In the early 1970s, Smith said Jonesborough was a dying town. He said the infrastructure was in poor shape in downtown Jonesborough and the buildings were sitting empty.

At that time, Smith was sitting on the planning commission when discussions about planning a big event for the four seasons took place. That’s when the idea resurfaced of having a storytelling festival in October.

Smith said he wanted to preserve the old stories about each other, the community, history and the region, through a festival.

“My dream is to see us celebrate our stories because so many of our stories are dying,” he said. “What the festival did was to ignite a revival of storytelling across America and many parts of the world and it began in little Jonesborough quite by accident.”

The festival began on an old wagon with five or six storytellers.

“I invited people to come up on stage and tell their stories,” Smith said. “I think everyone recognized it was something special.”

Smith was also the mayor from 1978 until 1984. During his administration he began the town’s tourism program, the recreation program, the Senior Center program, built the Visitors Center, Town Hall and the current water treatment plant.

“It was a communitywide effort,” he said.

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