Great Smoky Mountains Association's Board of Directors

Great Smoky Mountains Association's Board of Directors is made up of business and community leaders who live and work in Tennessee and North Carolina, and who provide guidance and oversight of the organization. Their love of and appreciation for Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in large part the reason these dedicated volunteers give their time and expertise for the benefit of the association.

Board Officers

Board Chair

Kelly Leonard

Kelly Leonard

Kelly currently serves as Vice President of Entegra Bank in Hendersonville, NC. In addition to 34 years of banking experience, he has also been involved in economic development efforts in Henderson County throughout the last 15 years. With family roots in the mountains of Western North Carolina and Tennessee, he is reminded of how important it is to preserve, protect and sustain the park so that others can experience and enjoy the history of the region. "I have been extremely fortunate to have been involved with GSMA since the early 1990s, serving as a board member throughout most of that time,” he said. “It is an honor to continue as a volunteer as the Association transitions into a new era of leadership and growth.”

Vice Chair

Herb Handley

Herb Handly

Herb is a Knoxville native who has lived in Wears Valley since 1999. He is retired from both a 30-year career as a retail business executive and from a second career as executive vice president of the Smoky Mountains Convention and Visitors Bureau. During his time with the CVB, he developed a program to promote the heritage and culture of the Blount County area and introduce sustainable tourism to the region. He also helped develop and served on the charter board of directors at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and initiated the Experience Your Smokies program for Blount County in partnership with the park. “My family had one of the cottages in Elkmont, and I spent many wonderful summers there from the 1950s on through 1992,” said Herb. “As a result, I developed a deep love for the mountains and what they had to offer in nature and beauty."

Treasurer

Ellis Bacon

Ellis Bacon

Ellis is a Doctor of Ethology and retired founder and manager of the South's Finest Chocolate Factory, in Knoxville. After moving into GSMNP in 1969 in order to research black bear behavior, he became one of the first volunteers to teach at the Institute at Tremont and went on to serve as director of the Institute for five years. He has served as President of the Knoxville Tourist Bureau, the Knoxville Tourism Council and on the board of the Public Lands Alliance. Ellis is currently a board member and treasurer of Katmai Conservancy, a friends group for Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. He has served on the GSMA board since the 1980s. “I've been fortunate to live in and immediately adjacent to the park for more than 45 years,” said Ellis. “GSMA is giving me an opportunity to give back to the Smokies a small portion of what I have received."

Secretary

Geoff Cantrell

Geoff Cantrell

Geoff lives in Waynesville, NC and works as a Public Communications Specialist for Western Carolina University, serving as a liaison between the university and news media. He also serves as the Marketing and Promotions Director for the university’s Mountain Heritage Day, an annual festival that celebrates Southern Appalachian culture. Geoff’s mother’s family has been in the region for seven generations and his ancestors were among the families that relocated to make way for the park. His father was a park ranger who began his career in GSMNP. “My roots run deep here,” he said. “It’s a privilege to serve alongside talented and dedicated people who share a love of the park and are working to protect and enhance it.”

Board of Directors

Gaynell H. Lawson

Gaynell H. Lawson

Gaynell recently retired from her position as President/CEO of CBBC Bank, in Maryville, where she was employed since its inception in 1973. She continues to serve on the bank’s Board of Directors and was recently named Chair of the Board. A native Blount Countian, she has been active in civic and community pursuits through the years, working with the Blount County Chamber of Commerce, Maryville College and United Way, where she served as 2001 Chair of the General Campaign. In 2016, Gaynell received the Athena Award for outstanding leadership in Blount County. She and her husband, Daniel, have been involved in the GSMNP for many years in various volunteer roles. “I am excited to begin my activity on the GSMA Board and look forward to using my professional skills to benefit the Association’s mission,” she said.

Daniel Pierce

Daniel S. Pierce

Dan is an avid hiker, biker and fly fisherman from Black Mountain, NC. He is the author of the recent GSMA release Hazel Creek, as well as The Great Smokies and Corn From a Jar, and co-author of An Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He serves as Professor of History and, in his words, “resident professional hillbilly” at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Dan grew up going to the park and has spent many wonderful days there with friends and family. “Serving as a board member of GSMA is important to me as a way of ensuring that future generations enjoy the scenery, solitude, and solace found in these wonderful mountains,” he said.

Cheryl Light

Cheryl Light

Cheryl is Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Home Federal Bank of Tennessee, where she has worked since 2000. She also serves on the boards for the YWCA of Knoxville and the Tennessee Valley and the Holston Conference Foundation of the United Methodist Church. An attorney by profession, Cheryl graduated from ETSU and spent a summer working in Yellowstone National Park before attending Wake Forest University School of Law. She has lived in Dandridge, Tennessee since 1983 and served on the GSMA board multiple times. “To see the growth in GSMA’s membership over the past few years and the enthusiasm of our members for our mission is exciting,” said Cheryl. “While we know what a special place this park is, it needs all of our continued efforts and commitment to ensure it is protected and preserved for those coming after us."

Jamie Ballinger-Holden

Jamie Ballinger-Holden

Jamie resides in Knoxville and works at Baker Donelson as an attorney specializing in health care defense litigation and employment litigation. Named one of Knoxville Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 in 2015, she has been a GSMA board member since 2017. She has served on the board of other local organizations as well, including the Interfaith Health Clinic. Due to her community involvement and her advocacy for women, Jamie was awarded the Spirit of Justice Award by the East Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women in 2017 and received the President’s Award from the Knoxville Bar Association. She was also recently selected as a Fellow in the Knoxville Bar Foundation. “The park holds a lot of special memories for me and my family,” said Jamie. “I want to help ensure that it is protected and improved so that others can be awed by its majesty and timelessness.”

Tom Taylor

Tom Taylor

A Maryville native, Tom has served as the city’s mayor since 2008. He co-owned and operated the local businesses Commercial Cutting Equipment, Inc., Drake Auto Parts, Inc., and Morningside Inn. Prior to his entrepreneurial career, Tom attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Graduate Program in Ecology, taught at Maryville College and worked for the US Department of the Interior Youth Conservation Corp. He has been involved with many non-profit organizations including Boy Scouts of America, American Red Cross, Blount County Community Action Agency and Blount County Adult Literacy Program. Tom served on the GSMA board from 1995–2000 and on the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center board from 2005–2009. He rejoined the GSMA board in 2016. “I returned because I appreciate the members’ creativity, hard work and data-driven decision-making,” Tom said. “And, selfishly, because I simply enjoy working with them.”

Katie Branham Kerr

Katie Branham Kerr

A GSMA board member since 2015, Katie lives in Maryville and works as the Purchasing Agent for Blount County Government. She is an attorney by profession and a Member of the Bar in both Tennessee and Florida. Katie has been involved in a variety of volunteer and nonprofit organizations, including American Alpine Club, Keep Blount Beautiful and Project Healing Waters. She graduated from Experience Your Smokies in 2015. “My involvement with GSMNP began with family outings as a child,” Katie said. “Throughout college I hiked, camped, fished and volunteered for trail maintenance. I enjoy being involved with the community in which I live, work and play and I want to give back to the park.”