Gary Everhardt: The “Right Man at the Right Time” on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Editor's note: Gary Everhardt's blood must run green, what with all the years he worked for the National Park Service and all the challenges he took on. From a first job as an engineer with the agency, his career took flight, leading him to the directorship of the Park Service and then back into the field at the Blue Ridge Parkway, where he was a long-serving superintendent whose oversight can still be seen along the Parkway. In this, the first of a two-part series by Randy Johnson, Mr. Everhardt explains how he came both to the Park Service and to the Parkway.
Nations everywhere name buildings to honor pivotal figures, the people whose contributions form the foundation on which the future stands. We all see such structures, but it’s rare to wander the halls of one with the person whose name is chiseled on the plaque and attached to the boulder out front -- especially when it’s the headquarters of the most-visited unit of the National Park System.
I did that recently with Gary Everhardt, namesake of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s “Gary E. Everhardt Headquarters Building.”
It’s easy to look back on the history of a monumental movement like the United States’ National Park Service and lose sight of the fact that responsibility for “America’s Best Idea” resides in real people whose very own ideas have led the way. Gary Everhardt -- North Carolinian, mountain native -- is one of the people responsible for Ken Burns’ recent series on the park system.
Mr. Everhardt was just 1-year-old when construction on the Parkway started in 1935, and “if there had been a 25th anniversary celebration, I would have been been here for it,” he says. “I was also with the Parkway for the 50th, and now I’m still around for the 75th.”
With a twinkle in his eye, he says, “I won’t speculate on whether I’ll see the 100th.”
Mr. Everhardt, the fifth of only eight superintendents on the Parkway, was instrumental in the initiation, completion (or both) of significant parts of what the Parkway is today. That list includes the Linn Cove Viaduct and the Grandfather Mountain “missing link” portion of the Parkway. It includes Asheville’s Folk Art Center and the new Parkway Visitor Center, the latter the road’s newest, greenest, indeed principal, visitor facility. The list also includes the headquarters building that sits across a concrete bridge from the new visitor center -- Mr. Everhardt’s “non-swinging bridge,” he says with a smile. And don’t forget the new Blue Ridge Music Center.
Gary Everhardt seems Western. Without suggesting that he is “similar to” anyone, he has an almost larger than life persona that reminds one of Lyndon Johnson. His white Stetson helps. Though undoubtedly influenced by his time out West, he speaks with the soft drawl of his native North Carolina mountains. He was born and raised in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, where he’d later play a major role in completing the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Gary Everhardt’s involvement ebbs and flows through the entire history of the high road.
He was born and lived in Lenoir as a child. “When I was growing up, I didn’t know much about parks,” he says. “It just wasn’t a part of our culture back in the late '40s or '50s.”
Nevertheless, he and his brothers “used to go up into Pisgah National Forest to fish and hike around and I remember looking up at Grandfather Mountain.” Back then, “the Parkway stopped far to the north, back about Deep Gap.”
At the end of high school, “I pretty much left Lenoir” (he still has family there) to attend NC State.” Destiny seemed to be stepping in, even then, as Mr. Everhardt worked for the National Park Service “the summer of 1956 up in Boone, my junior year. It was kind’a like an internship. I worked surveying boundaries around Deep Gap and Grandfather.”
“When I went to college and started looking for a job (with a degree in Civil Engineering), I wasn’t angling to be a park guy like so many people are today,” he says -- “which is a very good thing.”
He interviewed with Boeing Aircraft and the Navy Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia. “Gosh, I didn’t know whether I liked that too much,” he remembers. “Then I had an offer from the Park Service, for an engineering job. I had that reference from my summer job in Boone and I thought that would be a lot better than sitting at a desk in Seattle, Washington doing stress analysis on airframes, or working in the Navy Yard at Newport News. I jumped at it.”
“It all kind’a happened by accident in some respects,” he says.
He accepted an engineering job at a NPS design center in Philadelphia “but stationed on the Blue Ridge Parkway.” His career turned toward maintenance. “That’s a big program,” he says. “It takes a lot of the resources of the National Park Service to maintain the facilities, to keep the grass cut. My best times were spent out in the parks, helping out the staff, getting something fixed, drilling a well so they didn’t have to rely on spring water.”
Eventually Mr. Everhardt went West, as the Park Service's regional chief of maintenance in Santa Fe. “I loved it out there,” he says. “I didn’t think there was anyplace like the Southwest. We lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for 4 years.”
In 1969, he was named assistant superintendent for operations at Yellowstone National Park, where he was directly responsible for all park operations. He became superintendent at Grand Teton National Park in 1972, earning the Department of the Interior’s Meritorious Service Award for helping to plan and execute a global national parks conference during the National Parks Centennial.
In 1975, Mr. Everhardt head back east to Washington to be sworn in as the ninth director of the National Park Service. Under Gerald Ford, he oversaw a 32-million acre expansion of parkland in Alaska. “It was a key time, essentially determining how Congress was going to divide up these pristine lands between the Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the state. The Park Service doubled its acreage.”
That brought him into contact with the movers and shakers in Park Service history—and made him one one of them.
Gary Everhardt was happy to be back in the North Carolina mountains in the late 1970s and he hasn’t left since.
“You get out to some of those places like Grand Teton and Glacier, and they’re just fabulous,” he says. “They’re forbidding and dark in a way, but they have their own special magnetism. I used to sit on the east side of the Grand Tetons and marvel at those mountains jumping up out of that valley floor for 7,000 feet, right in front of you.
“It’s a long winter out there,” Mr. Everhardt continues. “Visitation to those parks falls off like somebody just closed the gate. There’s great sights to see ... but the Blue Ridge is much more inviting. It kind’a draws you back.
"There’s just something about what you’ve grown up with, I guess,” he says. “It’s called home.
“People always ask me, ‘You’re going back to Wyoming aren’t you?’ and I always say, ‘I don’t think so!’”
He lives happily near Asheville, in Arden with his wife Nancy.
“When I started on the Parkway in the '50s, headquarters was in Roanoke and Sam Weems was the first superintendent,” Mr. Everhardt says. “Weems had started with programs like the Works Progress Administration and somehow transferred over to the Parkway.”
Just 22 years after the start of the road, Superintendent Weems was working with the Federal Highway Administration to complete the Parkway. “They were working on Pisgah Inn when I first I came to the Parkway,” Mr. Everhardt remembers.
His second arrival on the Parkway coincided with “Parkway headquarters being relocated down to Asheville—our offices were in the NW Bank Building,” he says. “I thought that the most heavily used unit of the NPS needed its own headquarters—and that became my goal.”
Gary Everhardt did it, “with the help of civic groups, Western North Carolina Tomorrow, High Country Host, the Land of Sky Council, a whole bunch of people.”
The building, dedicated to Everhardt, sits by Interstate 40 for easy access. The plan was to eventually have a major visitor center at the same site. When Everhardt arrived, “the Folk Art Center was under contract and we built that.”
Bridge to Somewhere
The completion of the Linn Cove Viaduct and Grandfather Mountain part of the Parkway were major achievements in Everhardt’s career.
Years before, Superintendent Weems and others had wrestled titanically with Hugh Morton, the owner of Grandfather Mountain, over the route of the Parkway. Park Service engineers proposed a high route that Mr. Morton feared would jeopardize the success of his Grandfather Mountain attraction and he argued that the plan would scar the wilderness of the peak.
Later, under Parkway Superintendent Granville Liles, a “lower route” was negotiated.
When the Parkway’s “missing link” opened in 1987, Mr. Everhardt remembers seeing Mr. Morton meet Superintendent Weems at the ceremony. “My guess,” Mr. Everhardt says, “is that was the first time they’d ever met. It was touching to see them talking—two old warriors burying the hatchet. Each had to know it had all turned out pretty good.”
Mr. Everhardt left behind the old controversies and often interacted with Hugh Morton while the road was being built, at times actually walking the route of the road and scrambling over the crags of the mountain in the company of Morton, and Parkway landscape architect Bob Hope.
“Hugh was one of the great supporters of the Parkway,” Mr. Everhardt says. “The time that went by (during the route controversy) helped generate opportunities and alternatives. What more fitting conclusion for the Parkway could there be than the Linn Cove Viaduct? Hugh Morton deserves credit for that.”
The viaduct opened in 1987, but another Parkway idea dawned a few years before in 1985. On the 50th anniversary of the Parkway, Mr. Everhardt and others were attending ceremonies near Cumberland Knob. “We’d been listening to all that great traditional music and got to talking one night. You know, spitting into the fire, drinking something, and somebody said, ‘We need a music center.’”
“During my time in Washington,” he recalls, “I used to go out to Wolf Trap (America’s National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia) and I loved what they’ve done there. The National Park Service could say, ‘we ought to stick to preserving natural resources,’ but the Parkway is a kind of music trail. I thought a music center was a great idea.”
The Blue Ridge Music Center is now a reality, at Milepost 213 just north of the Virginia line. Newly finalized exhibits trace mountain music from 1700s British Isles ballads to 20th century “hillbilly music,” Bluegrass, country music, and today’s revival of traditional music. Musicians appear daily and there’s an impressive outdoor amphitheater and concert series. “The Music Center will be a big part of the 75th celebration,” Mr. Everhardt says. “They’re going to have Bill Stanley up there.”
There’s little wonder why Gary Everhardt qualifies as a “Superintendent Emeritus” of sorts. It only takes one visit to headquarters with him to see the stature and esteem in which the man is held. Other people have made contributions to the Parkway, but if anyone can claim the title, Gary Everhardt may be “Mr. Blue Ridge Parkway.”
“When I think about my career in terms of years, it makes me feel a little old!” he says. “I never have dwelt on it much, but I’m proud of my work on the Parkway and I have thought about it more recently. When you add it all up, 42 years with the National Park Service, it’s been sensational."
“For many of those years I was in other places. But to have come in on the scene, been a part of it, then disappear and come back again, that’s the aspect of it that’s a little interesting.”
Randy Johnson is author of two bestselling trail guides to the Parkway (Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway) among other books. He launched the Grandfather Mountain trail preservation program in 1978 and often worked with Gary Everhardt during the completion of the Grandfather part of the Parkway. Randy was a design consultant for the Parkway’s Tanawha Trail. Today, Randy is the Task Force Leader for the Tanawha Trail portion of the Mountains-to-Sea. Visit his website to see his books.