Roberts excited about new focus for state parks

By Rozella Hardin
STAR Staff
rhardin@starhq.com
Herb Roberts, who has served as superintendent of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area for 20 years, sees his promotion to Regional Director for East Tennessee Parks as both a challenge and a new and exciting venture.
Roberts will begin his new job Monday, and will soon be re-locating to the Knoxville area, from where he will oversee 19 state parks, stretching from the Cumberland Plateau east to Roan Mountain and Sycamore State Parks, south to the Chattanooga area and north to Indian Mountain. "The East Tennessee region encompasses a large area, and I'm going to be on the road a lot," Roberts said, as he will try to visit each park at least once a month. "So, I'll still stay very much in touch with what is going on in Elizabethton and with Sycamore Shoals.
"It has been a wonderful experience living and working here. I have made so many friends and I'm going to miss being around them," Roberts said. "This move is bittersweet in that I'm excited about my new job. In fact, everything about the state park system right now is exciting. The tone has changed as well as the focus. Under the new administration, the focus is now geared toward resource management and program services as it should be."
The new director of state parks, Jim Fyke, formerly served as metro parks director in Nashville. "He has 38 years experience in park management and brings a lot of new ideas to the system. We have a new director of operations, a new exhibits person, and a new director of natural and cultural resources management. Many of these people formerly served in the state park system, and have been brought back. It is a very exciting time for Tennessee state parks and the people who work for the parks," Roberts exclaimed.
He began his career with the state parks system in 1973 as a junior ranger at the Natchez Trace State Park near Lexington. "I had received a degree from Middle Tennessee State University, and my intentions when I finished my stint with the Air Force was to return to the Nashville area and teach and coach. However, I learned about a ranger's job at Montgomery Bell State Park, and decided to apply for it. I didn't get hired, but I continued to badger the people at the state parks headquarters until I did get a job," Roberts said.
At the time he was employed as a ranger at Opryland, working six days a week. "On my only day off, I would spend part of the day fishing with my uncle, and then I would go to the state parks office and inquire about job openings," he said. Finally in September 1983, Roberts was one of 23 rangers hired.
"I enjoyed working with people, and I had my own idea of what a park ranger was. I thought they were the ones who led hikes and did nature work. Was I in for a surprise! They do that and more, such as park operations, maintenance, and manage campgrounds and docks, etc.," Roberts said.
In the meantime, he returned to school, receiving a B.S. degree in Natural Resource Management with a specialization in environmental interpretation from Tennessee Technological University.
After about two and one-half years at Natchez Trace, Roberts did short stints at Big Cypress Tree Natural Area in Greeneville, the Harpeth Scenic River Project in Middle Tennessee, and moved from there to Fall Creek Falls State Park, where he served as ranger-naturalist for four and one-half years.
"I loved Fall Creek with a passion, and I never thought I would leave it. We'd see a million people each year, and there were so many things to do and enjoy such as rock climbing, bicycle tours, and caving," Roberts shared.
But, he then learned about the opening at Sycamore Shoals State Park. A number of factors entered in his decision to apply for the job, among them Elizabethton's reputation of having a good school system and the beauty of this area. "Our kids were still in elementary school, and we weren't very happy about the quality of education where we were living. Also, we loved the mountains, which was a drawing card," he explained.
Roberts came to Sycamore Shoals State Park as superintendent in July 1983, and it's been a fun ride most of the time. "I found out quickly I didn't know very much about local history. When I was in the eighth grade I remember reading about Sycamore Shoals and the Overmountain Men, but I never realized the impact it had on history," he exclaimed.
As the new park superintendent, Roberts said he educated himself on the history of the area by reading everything he could find about Sycamore Shoals. "The neatest story is that of the Overmountain Men and what those patriots did in 1780 when they marched over the mountains to fight and defeat the British. It is awesome, and I don't think we fully appreciate it as much as we should," he opined.
Roberts has been actively involved in the outdoor drama "The Wataugans" during his tenure at Sycamore Shoals. "We've seen a lot of good things happen. This year's presentation had the largest audiences ever in its 25-year history. It has grown into a fantastic drama. The Friends of the Park have been very active in promoting it," he said.
"Also, the amphitheatre was a very positive thing for the park, as has been the walking trail, which extends through the park and along the river," said Roberts.
It has not been unusual to visit the park and find Roberts dressed in colonial attire, as day after day he lectures and presents programs on the history surrounding Sycamore Shoals and Fort Watauga. "I guess I will leave these behind," Roberts said pointing to his knee britches and cotton gingham shirt, having given a program at Davy Crockett State Park earlier in the day.
Aside from park activities and promotions as well as managing the Carter Mansion, Roberts has been very active in the community, serving as president of the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce on two different occasions as well as a member of the board. He also has served as a boy scout leader, a member of the Watauga Historical Association and the Elizabethton Choral Club, and a board member and coach at the local Boys and Girls Club.
Roberts has also been involved with the track programs at both T.A. Dugger and Elizabethton High School, and has worked area track meets in various capacities. He has filmed football games for Elizabethton High School for the past 16 years.
His wife, Terri, worked for a number of years as art director at the local boys and girls club before a recent move to the Johnson City Club. They are the parents of a grown son and daughter; Dan who is a captain in the Air Force, serving in Japan, and Cassie, who is a teacher and lives in Annapolis, Md. Both, he and his wife are members of Elizabethton First Baptist Church.
In his new position, Roberts will be working with all of the parks in this region. I enjoy recreating, and I now will have the opportunity to recreate some myself," he said.
Although his new job begins Sept. 1, Roberts will have a year to relocate. "I'm going to miss coffee every Saturday morning at David Lynn's. That's where you can check on the pulse of Elizabethton," he said with a chuckle.