Carol Evans arrived in Knoxville long before the greenways did. But within a decade this self-described enthusiastic individual with big ideas found herself in the executive director role of the Legacy Parks Foundation, leading the charge of how the community interacts with their environment.
It’s hard to imagine the Legacy Parks Foundation without Carol Evans. But it’s a good thing we don’t have to. She’s been there since its inception. “I think it’s just where my heart is,” she tells me.
Carol’s intro to this work was happily unexpected. She moved to Knoxville in the ’80s and began doing marketing for the Lady Vols. “I loved that job because I always said we were the best part of somebody’s day.” She left not long into the role for another with Scripps Networks. But somewhere along the way, Carol was approached to join a new advisory board for Knox County, one entirely focused on green space and the community’s connection to it.
The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board was created in the early ’90s as an element of the Knox County Greenways Plan. It was tasked with overseeing the development of the county’s park system. “The idea for Legacy Parks came out of that park advisory board,” she tells me. The board spent time researching models that worked and recruiting board members to help. “It was very entrepreneurial in the beginning because you’re forming a whole organization, and all the branding and all the marketing and the prep materials, and so I got pretty immersed.”
The board hired an executive director who was there for under a year, but before leaving she pushed Carol to throw her name in the ring. “I’m like, ‘Why? I don’t know that I’m ready to take the leap from it being a passion and having an interest in nonprofits to actually doing it for a living.’ But I did and it was the smartest choice I’ve made.”
Fast forward to today, and Carol has been at the helm now for almost three decades, raising money for parks, trails, and open spaces in the region. “We conserve natural resources. We connect communities and we create public places,” she says. And while the work can be “hyper-focused” on Knox County, there’s a regional goal at play here, she says. ”We have incredible natural resources. We’ve not always seen them fully for what they are. We’ve not taken advantage of them, and we’ve not accessed them,” she says. Early on, these natural assets weren’t recognized as such. “But over the time I’ve been in this job, the world changed.”
What she is referring to is how generations approach where they live. And she’s right. Instead of getting a degree, finding a job and moving where the job is, so many in younger generations put place before profession. “While I was in this job, we saw the world shift a bit and having the opportunity to ride your bike or go for a hike or go for a paddle close to home became important for where people chose to live and have a career.” She takes pride in the part she and the organization have played in helping to shape Knoxville’s identity as an outdoor town. And she pours her heart and soul into the work. I find it fascinating that even when Carol is having a tough day at work, it’s the spaces she works so hard for that she retreats to for peace, hiking and “playing,” as she calls it. “I’d go over to Baker Creek and I would walk outside and someone would thank me and us for what we’re doing. And that’s the reward in itself.” She doesn’t work for the recognition, but those comments let her know that the work she’s doing daily is working.
Carol is settled in to how she leads. And she attributes that comfort to her work with the Knoxville Chamber more than 20 years ago. “We did a series where we brought in leaders…and all of them had a different style,” she says. “And that stuck with me, that I had the confidence or at least the assurance that the way I do it can still be right, and someone else can do it and still be right.” She’s a conceptual leader, she tells me. “I do think people want the vision of where you’re headed and where they can see themselves.” So she surrounds herself with people who can take her big ideas and make them reality. The most recent example of which is Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. “We announced it and then we got somebody to do a plan to show us how that would work.” Today she works to do those things simultaneously. She’s constantly learning.
While she wishes someone told her earlier on to “listen more” and that “it’s really okay not to know things,” the skills she’s picked up along her path have made a world of difference. As she collaborates more with other organizations on projects—something she’s seen happening more and more over the last three decades—her ability to learn and grow in her work never stops, and I have reason to believe she wouldn’t want that any other way. “It keeps it fresh and interesting.”