The founder of Smokies Life magazine and its editor for ten years, Steve Kemp was happy to see that we have updated the index of all the magazine’s issues to date and said, “Thanks so much for the index. I use Smokies Life all the time for researching articles, guided hikes, and other projects.” We asked him to tell us how it all started.
SL: How did you first conceive of Smokies Life magazine?
SK: Kent Cave, the National Park Service’s official liaison with GSMA, and I were reviewing a Smokies Guide article. Kent is a long-time park ranger and expert in southern Appalachian culture and history. As usual, Kent wanted to expand the article to include related aspects of park history. As usual, even though I agreed with Kent, I said we didn’t have the space in Smokies Guide to do that. Then I said, “We should start a magazine.” Then, realizing I didn’t have the time to work on another periodical, I said, “Please don’t ever tell anyone I suggested that.”
Regardless, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It was at a time when other parks and regional organizations were coming out with super high-quality magazines tightly focused on their culture and natural histories. They were saying, “This is who we are. This is what makes us unique.” So, I pitched the idea to GSMA’s management team and to the publications committee on our board of directors. We were gearing up for the park’s 75th anniversary, and the magazine started as another way to celebrate this milestone. They absolutely embraced the idea. They were especially excited about using the magazine as a premium to reward members of GSMA.
SL: What was the biggest challenge when you were getting started?
SK: Surprisingly, the design and editorial content came quite easily. GSMA already had talented graphic designers like Lisa Horstman, Karen Key, and Joey Heath on staff and there were several excellent freelance writers and photographers around eager to contribute. There were also plenty of local businesses and nonprofit organizations who jumped at the chance to advertise and become a part of the park community. The biggest challenge was mailing the magazine at a reasonable cost, at a reasonable speed, and packaged so that it arrived in good shape. When our members didn’t receive their magazine in a timely fashion, they weren’t shy about letting us know!
SL: What do you feel are the magazines greatest contributions to GSMA members and to the park?
SK: I see it as a timeless collection of the park’s most compelling stories. They are the kinds of stories that are too short to make a book but too long to fit in a newsletter or newspaper. Through Smokies Life, GSMA is building and preserving a body of work that will be even more valuable 100 years from now than it is today.
SL: Do you have a favorite topic or story that you created or directed?
SK: That’s a tough question. I do have a favorite letter to the editor. It was from a reader in regards to a story on Lem Ownby written by Don Williams. Paraphrasing, it went something like this, “I liked the story about Lem Ownby so much that as soon as I finished reading it the first time, I immediately read it again.” I don’t think a writer has ever received a better compliment.
SL: How do you think the magazine has transitioned after you handed it over to a new editor?
SK: I have absolutely loved every cover Frances has worked on. The layouts are gorgeous. I admire her courage in making the magazine longer and with a greater diversity of stories. She hits her deadlines, too. Not an easy task.
SL: What do you like about getting to write for Smokies Life?
SK: I know I’ll get to interview lots of interesting people and learn new things about my favorite place in the world. Going deep into the park archives with Archivist/Librarian Mike Aday is always an adventure and a pleasure. It’s really incredible to hold a telegram from David Chapman or Arno Cammerer in your gloved hand. You can feel their excitement as their dream of a national park slowly became reality. With Smokies Life, I always get to go in depth on certain aspects of the story. It won’t be just another blurb or superficial overview. It’s also good to know Frances will save me from my most embarrassing mistakes.
SL: You’ve also contributed to the new Smokies LIVE? What do you think about this little virtual sister to the mag?
SK: It makes the Smokies Life experience much more timely and immediate. I always dreamed of some kind of publication that could keep up with all the seasonal changes in the Smokies: wildflower blooming, bird migrations, fall colors, and how a particular storm or weather event has impacted the park. Smokies LIVE may be just that vehicle!
SL: What are you working on next?
SK: The research for my Fall 2019 Smokies Life article on John D. Rockefeller Jr. and his donation to help create the park has led me to write a book on the broader topic of Rockefeller’s philanthropy for some 20 national parks, including Acadia, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grand Tetons, Shenandoah, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. Junior became close friends with one of my heroes, Horace Albright (Yellowstone superintendent and NPS director) and together they accomplished incredible things. In fact, Junior helped create the first national park cooperating association, of which GSMA is just one example. The book’s working title is The Good Billionaire: John D. Rockefeller Jr. and America’s Crown Jewel National Parks.