GATLINBURG, Tennessee — Growing up in Memphis, the son of a homicide detective and a cosmetologist, Cassius Cash didn't dream of one day being the superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
He was set, instead, on being a doctor.
As a pre-med student in biology at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, however, the pathway for the Smokies' new leader came to a crossroads.
On the way to band practice — he played in the band for 15 years — Cash heard some talk that the U.S. Forest Service was on campus conducting interviews.
A junior in a science field, Cash thought why not interview? It might be good practice.
"The only thing that came (to mind) was Smokey the Bear," Cash said with a smile Thursday morning from his office at park headquarters, where he was beginning his fourth day on the job.
"You could tell it was trying to fit a round (peg) into a square (hole), of trying to make it work, because it was a wildlife internship," Cash said.
But something buried deeper in his background was about to turn the interview on its head.
"When I mentioned I was a Boy Scout, that turned the whole interview around."
Cash's days of walking through the Memphis housing projects to get to weekly scout meetings were now paying off.
"Troop 511," Cash recalled. "Mr. Peabody, I think he was a retired Marine. I was hell-bent on making sure I made those meetings every week."
Those meetings, and lots of childhood memories of spending Sunday afternoons watching Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom," drew Cash to the potential of altering his career plans.
The interview was successful, and Cash earned an offer for an internship in Washington state.
It was something he couldn't pass up.
"It was a leap of faith," he said. "That was the first and last argument I ever had with my mom. She wasn't letting her baby go way out west to Washington state to be in the woods." But that leap, and a mountain of hard work, has led Cash to where he is now — the first African-American superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
And it's that leap that Cash uses today when he talks to children about their own futures.
"When I talk to kids, I talk about allowing the curiosity of success overwhelm the fear of failure," Cash said. "I went against that grain, and it was really scary for me. But it paid off."
It's something he said he hopes to communicate to local kids, as well as those back home in Memphis.
"My focus here, in North Carolina, and when I have opportunities to go back to Memphis, it's going to be letting kids know that you can do this too," he said. "One of the (reasons) why it seemed so impossible (to me) was I didn't see anyone that looked like me doing it."
Through part of a week, Cash said he's thoroughly enjoying the Smokies.
"When I walk down from the government housing along the creek, I still have to pinch myself and say this is actually real," Cash said.
"It was quite a process to go through, as you would imagine. This being the (National Park System's) jewel of the east, there's a lot of interest nationwide. So it took me a while to just grasp that I'm the next one to be honored to be in this position."
Cash says his main focus as superintendent will be simple.
"I just want to do right by the park," he said. "I want to leave it in a better place than I found it, and so all of the other things outside of that ... really don't matter to me. I just want to do right by the park."
So far, Cash's time has been a whirlwind.
"(It's been) unpacking the boxes, people coming by to introduce themselves, and I had my first meet-and-greet with employees yesterday," Cash said. "That was great. I truly understand why people have been here for 15-20 years.
"I just don't know what else can top being here in Gatlinburg and working over in North Carolina with such invaluable resources. I don't know what can top it."
Cash said he's looking most forward to seeing the park's wildflowers and the changing of colors in the fall.
"I want to see the wildflowers. I hear that people from all around the country come to see the unique species of wildflowers that are here, only in the Smokies," he said. "And, coming from New England, I'm really interested in seeing leaf-peeping compared to the Boston/New England area to here. I'm looking forward to seeing a vast, open landscape ... of that unique beauty."
Cash's wife and daughters are still in New England, but he hopes they will be able to join him in East Tennessee soon.
"They're still fighting that snow in Boston," Cash said. "It depends on how lucky we are trying to sell our house with 8-foot snow drifts.
"If we sell that house early enough, like before spring break, we might move them on down."
The superintendent said he's not concerned with his family adjusting to small town life from the metro Boston area. They have done small towns before.
Cash said the family lived in a town of just 4,000 in the plains of Nebraska when he was still working for the U.S. Forest Service.
"We're not unfamiliar with small communities, and now that we've had a chance to live in a big city, I think we have an affinity to coming back to this and being close to the outdoors," Cash said. "We went and did two or three days of backcountry hiking in Acadia this past summer in Maine, and I saw the family react, and I said at that time, 'If I get this job, it's going to really feel right.'"
Information from: The Mountain Press, http://www.themountainpress.com
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