Raised in the concrete landscape of Memphis, Tenn., Cassius Cash grew up hoping for an “urban-type” job — police officer, firefighter, lawyer, doctor. In college, he became a pre-med biology major. “My purpose was to help people, and I felt I could do that through medicine,” Cash recalls.
So how did a big-city doc-to-be end up as superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Two reasons: Scouting and the old TV classic Wild Kingdom.
Cash’s turning point came one day during his college career when he interviewed with the U.S. Forest Service for a wildlife internship. Pre-med wasn’t a perfect fit for the job, and Cash could feel the opportunity slipping away — until he mentioned that he had been a Boy Scout in Memphis’ Troop 511.
“Initially, they probably thought that a kid from an urban environment might not have the outdoor experience needed,” Cash says. “But Scouting gave me that experience with those weekend campouts and jamborees where I built a relationship with the natural world. I told them how Scouting taught me to be a team leader and a team player. That’s when the whole tone and tenor of the conversation changed.”
Cash also explained how his early love of the outdoors was sparked by Wild Kingdom, the groundbreaking series that brought the amazing world of nature to a wide-eyed, inner-city kid. “That was one good thing television did for me,” he says. “That show really allowed the imagination to be tapped, traveling to so many different parts of the world and showing us animals in their habitats.”
The internship opened the door to an exciting career for Cash, now 46. Before coming to Great Smoky last year, Cash served as superintendent at Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historical Site. Today, he oversees Great Smoky, the most-visited national park in the country, a half-million-acre jewel drawing 10 million visitors and $806 million in tourist dollars each year. And he still thinks about the lessons he learned from his old Scout leader, an ex-Marine named Henry Peabody.
“He showed such a commitment to us,” Cash says. “He was a white guy who had this group of young African-American men. He saw something in us and stuck with us. I’ll always remember him for that.”
When he speaks to young people today, Cash notes that his training in leadership and critical thinking didn’t come from college textbooks. “Boy Scouts teaches kids how to be leaders,” he tells them. “You finish things, you get a merit badge or you move up to the next rank. That builds confidence. Boy Scouts was my first experience of that.”