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

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."

Vice Chair

Mitch Crisp

Mitch Crisp

Mitch is a Seneca, South Carolina, resident and a retired CPA firm partner with a practice focus on entrepreneurs, nonprofit entities, and local governments. He is currently the vice chair of the GSMA board and has formerly served as the board’s secretary and treasurer. Mitch has also served as the board chair of the Jackson County, North Carolina, Chamber of Commerce, board member for the Southwestern Community College Foundation, and lieutenant governor for the North Carolina West District of Optimist International. Mitch’s connection to the Smokies runs deep. “Park memories are among my very earliest recollections,” said Mitch, who grew up in a county adjoining the park. “I’ve always treasured my time in the park and the feeling that is noticeable each and every time I cross the park boundary. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to this amazing resource being here for my granddaughters.”

Treasurer

Kelly Leonard

Kelly Leonard

Kelly currently serves as vice president of First Citizens Bank in Hendersonville, North Carolina. In addition to 36 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.”

Secretary

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 Leadership Blount. 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.”

Board of Directors

Jamie Ballinger-Holden

Jamie Ballinger

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.”

Geoff Cantrell

Geoff Cantrell

Geoff is a Waynesville, North Carolina, resident who works in the University Communications and Marketing office at Western Carolina University and previously handled public affairs for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in Raleigh. The eldest son of a national park ranger, Geoff’s childhood was spent in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where he played, fished and hiked, and learned the stories and history of the region. He attended the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he was a reporter for the campus newspaper, and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. Geoff is a descendant of Moses and Patience Proctor, pioneer settlers in the Hazel Creek watershed, an area now protected within park boundaries. An avid fly fisherman and outdoorsman, he is involved in several conservation efforts. “The Smokies are truly a special place and hold so many memories for me and my family. There’s a similar opportunity for anyone, from anywhere, to visit and create their own memories here,” Geoff said. “That opportunity exists because of the care, protection, and interpretation by the National Park Service and public partnerships like GSMA.”

Lisa Davis

Lisa Davis

Lisa is the chief financial officer of Ascension Saint Thomas in Nashville, Tennessee. She has been in this role since 2015 and has been part of Ascension in various roles since 1998. Lisa began her career at Ernst & Young in Nashville. An East Tennessee native, Lisa received her Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and her Master of Accountancy from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She served as a board member for Alive Hospice in Nashville for six years and is currently serving as a member of the Finance Board and Credit Committee of the Nashville Diocese. Lisa was named to Nashville Medical News Women to Watch in 2019 and was previously a Nashville Business Journal CFO Awards finalist. “Having grown up in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Blount County, I have fond memories of spending my childhood hiking, picnicking, and enjoying the majestic scenery with my family,” said Lisa. “I am honored to serve in a role that gives me the opportunity to support and preserve this special place.”

Jerry DeWeese

Jerry DeWeese

Jerry has worked as a mechanical engineer for Duke Energy’s Hydro Fleet in Western North Carolina and South Carolina for the past decade. He graduated from NC State University in 1991 and has been practicing engineering in both the power generation and pulp and paper fields since. Jerry and his wife, Catherine, live in Sylva, NC, where he was born and has lived for most of his life. Jerry and Catherine have two adult daughters, Maggie and Katie. Jerry has served as a volunteer with the GSMNP fisheries crews since the mid-1990s. In addition to serving on the GSMA board since 2018, he has served on the board of trustees for Sylva First United Methodist Church for the past 18 years and has served on the Jackson County Board of Public Health for 15 years. Jerry is an avid fly fisherman, spending the last 27 years “in training” on the beautiful waters of the Smokies, assembling enough stories to “bore you to tears,” according to Catherine. “I feel that serving on the GSMA board is both an honor and a duty,” said Jerry. “I will work to preserve this amazing park for future generations and, in the process, be given the opportunity to give back to the place that has given me such great pleasure since I realized the awesome treasure right in my backyard.”

Jan Houston-Hickman

Janet Houston-Hickman

Jan is a native of Alcoa, Tennessee, most recently retired as a regional director for Delta Global Services after a 25-year career in the aviation industry. She now spends her free time with church activities, gardening, traveling, reading, and spending quality time with family and friends. She graduated from Alcoa High School in 1968 and attended the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, receiving a BS degree in business administration with an emphasis in marketing. Her community leadership and volunteer experiences are numerous and include serving as president of the Knoxville Chapter of the Links, coordinating the Delta Airlines Adopt a School Program, and serving as a contributing member of many other community organizations. “I’m thrilled to join the GSMA board,” said Jan. “As a child, my family had a weekend trips—picnic, swimming, and rafting—planned every weekend to the Great Smoky Mountains. It is my understanding that some people of color have not experienced the joy that my family did, and it is my hope that, with some work and investigation, our board will be able to learn how and why this perception has taken hold. My background in the airline industry may also help me contribute to the day-to-day operations of the visitor centers and other GSMA commitments.”

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.

Ed McAlister

Ed McAlister

Ed McAlister is a local of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the president of River Sports Outfitters. Born in Union City, Tennessee, Ed earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering at the University of Tennessee before founding River Sports Outfitters in 1984. Ed is active in many outdoors and civic groups and has served on the board of the Outdoor Industry Association and the Grassroots Outdoors Alliance for six years respectively. An avid outdoorsman, Ed appreciates the refuge provided by the Smokies for some of his most cherished activities. Though he has spent the better part of his career giving advice and helping others find equipment for a variety of outdoor recreations, Ed said he particularly enjoys “all aspects of white and flat water, mountaineering, canyoneering, and triathlons.”

Daniel Pierce

Daniel S. Pierce

Dan is an avid hiker, biker, and fly fisherman from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He is the author of the recent Tarheel Lightnin' (UNC Press) and GSMA releases Hazel Creek and Corn From a Jar and co-author of An Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He serves as Interdisciplinary Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South 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.

Ron Storto

Ron Storto

Ron is currently enjoying a well-deserved sabbatical from a long and diverse career in the lodging and restaurant industry and has been actively involved in the Western North Carolina community he’s called home for over 20 years. In addition to serving on the GSMA board, Ron is a member of the AB Tech Foundation Board, a founding member of the Asheville-Buncombe Regional Sports Commission and the Southern Conference Local Organizing Committee, and the former chair of the Asheville Lodging Association, a division of the NCRLA. His past leadership roles include serving as a board member and chair of Junior Achievement of WNC, board member and chair of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, member of the Mayor’s Civic Center Task Force, advisory board member for SunTrust Bank, member of the UNC Asheville Foundation Board, member of the Asheville Regional Airport Corporate Advisory Group, as well as chair and board member of the Tourism Product Development Fund. Among his many interests, he enjoys hiking and fishing. “My connection with the Smokies grew when my family moved to Western North Carolina and I became an avid fly-fisher,” said Ron. Serving on GSMA’s board deepens that connection further in an area Ron and his family have called home for decades.

Tom Taylor

Tom Taylor

Tom is a Maryville native and served as the city’s mayor from 2008 to 2020. He co-owned and operated local businesses Commercial Cutting Equipment, Drake Auto Parts, and Morningside Inn. Prior to his business career, Tom attended Maryville College and the University of Tennessee graduate program in ecology, taught biology at Maryville College, and was director of the Tremont Youth Conservation Corps in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He has been involved with many nonprofit organizations including Boy Scouts of America, American Red Cross, Blount County Community Action Agency, and Blount County Public Library. Tom served on the GSMA board from 1995 to 2000 and on the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center board from 2005 to 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.”