May 10, 2019
by Julie Dodd
More than 5,000 middle school, high school, and college students come to the Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob every year to learn about the nature and science of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The students learn about the impacts of air quality on plants and lichens. They follow salamander populations, and study the diversity of life in soils. The students learn how scientific research is conducted, and they become part of long-term NPS research initiatives.
The Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center came to be due to the donation of land and buildings at Purchase Knob by Kathryn K. McNeil and Voit Gilmore in 2000.
The land was to be used as a field station for visiting research scientists and for education groups to learn from the scientists about the Park’s natural resources and to help the researchers with their research.
This year the Park, with funding from Friends of the Smokies, will fulfill Kathryn McNeil’s vision of having an education specialist at Purchase Knob.
This new position for the Park will work with schools and youth organizations in North Carolina. FOTS will provide $68,000 to help support this teaching position.
“Kathryn McNeil, a founding member of FOTS, realized the value of having a permanent lead for the education programs,” said Paul Super, Science Coordinator at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center.
[The photo at the top of this post is of Susan Sachs, GSMNP Education Branch Chief, Paul Super, and Kathryn McNeil. The photo was taken in 2014 during McNeil’s last visit to Purchase Knob.]
Super explained that shortly before McNeil’s death in 2016, she worked with FOTS to set up a fund to endow the education specialist position at Purchase Knob.
“She spoke several times about how excited she was to be able to contribute to the education programming at Purchase Knob with this endowment,” Super said.
“You cannot have a program for school children if you don’t have someone to teach it,” he said. “We have managed to hire temporary rangers with grant funding, much of it through FOTS, but with the education specialist position we can have a consistent and dependable presence here, year after year.”
The new position funded by the Kathryn McNeil Endowment will be the lead in scheduling and providing education programs and teacher workshops at Purchase Knob. The education specialist also will update curriculum-based programs, which includes coordinating those programs with state curriculum mandates.
“Purchase Knob sees close to 5,000 students in its short season, making it our most popular site for education programs in the Smokies,” said Susan Sachs, GSMNP Education Branch Chief.
McNeil was a third-generation San Franciscan and a graduate of Vassar. After marrying Gilmore, they spent summers with their five children near Waynesville, North Carolina.
McNeil and Gilmore bought the almost 600 acres at Purchase Knob in 1964.
“It was one of those love-at-first-sight purchases,” McNeil wrote of Purchase Knob in her book Purchase Knob: Essays from a Mountain Notebook.
They built a summer home on the property, with high ceilings, a 20-foot picture window, and a massive fireplace. The house now is the Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center.
Her essays reflect her enthusiasm for the mountains and the grandeur of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which, would let her “see forever,” as she explained in one of her essays.
She loved hiking in the woods, studying the wildlife, learning the names of the flowers and trees, and savoring the views. She came to know and admire her mountain neighbors.
Super recounted his first meeting with McNeil:
“I came to Purchase Knob with a science camp from Tremont when I worked there in 2000, and the Purchase Knob house had not yet been transferred over to the Park. Kathy was up at the house while we were camped down by the cabin. She came down to check on us and make sure we had marshmallows for a campfire. Her meeting with the teenagers when very well. They were most impressed with her.
Super said, “Kathy loved the Smokies and especially Purchase Knob. She could talk to anyone, young or old, who might share that love. And she reached out to do something about promoting the protection of the places she loved. I think the teens were impressed that she cared, that she was so easy with her love of the place, and that she took the time to reach out to them and find out how they were doing. Offering marshmallows did not hurt.”
Sachs also remembered McNeil’s enthusiasm for meeting young people who were visiting Purchase Knob.
“One of my favorite memories is when we would bring small high school groups in the Upward Bound Math and Science program up to the Purchase during the summer of 2000 when Kathryn was still using the house,” Sachs said. “She would come out in the field to greet the groups and bring us iced tea and cookies. She was always as welcoming and gracious as could be.”
In 2001, Purchase Knob became one of five initial Learning Centers created by Congress to support research in the National Parks and to transmit the information generated to the public.
With the FOTS funding to support the Kathryn McNeil Endowment, McNeil’s aspiration of having an educational specialist at Purchase Knob will come to fruition, continuing McNeil’s desire to share her love of mountains with others.
If you are interested in supporting the Kathryn McNeil Endowment to fund an education specialist, please donate to FOTS for the endowment.