When the leaves start changing, people begin to think of pumpkin pie, bonfires and here in Jonesborough – The National Storytelling Festival.
But one cannot think about the Storytelling Festival with- out also being reminded of the man who made it all a reality — Jimmy Neil Smith.
Smith founded the National Storytelling Festival in 1973, which years later expanded to include the non-profit Inter- national Storytelling Center, which functions as the head- quarters and the producer of the festival.
Smith, who now lives in Johnson City, has said, “We are all storytellers. We live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling. The festival, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, ignited a story revolution that has spread across America and the world.”
Yet according to friends and community members, Smith has brought people together in more ways than the annual Festival he has become known for.
“Jimmy Neil and some students from Science Hill, where he taught, were out together and were listening to comedian Jerry Clower on the radio,” said local festival enthusiast and friend, Sue Henley. “That’s where Jimmy Neil got the idea. He said, ‘Why doesn’t Jonesborough do something like that?’ And that’s where it all started.
“He started that very first festival, which was a very small event that was done on people’s porches. He never gave up on that idea and he turned it into an international festival. It’s just phenomenal what he’s done.”
Henley added that Smith’s vision not only brought storytelling to the fore- front, but it helped the town grow into what it is today.
“It has had such an impact. The festival brought business and recognition to Jonesborough – and it’s all because of Jimmy Neil Smith. We became known as a wonderful place for tourists to come, especially during the Storytelling Festival,” she said. “The festival means so much to so many people. It’s like a spiritual awakening.”
Jonesborough resident Terri Knight believes that Smith has helped change lives across the globe in multiple ways.
“After 35 years, I can always count on Jimmy Neil to bring to the table of friends an appetite, an appreciation of good home cooking, and a collection
of stories that will bring laughter and tears,” Knight said. “What a privilege of friendship to have had the opportunity to watch him weave a kaleidoscope of people and their stories here in Jonesborough with the Storytelling Festival and to know that he has preserved them to create of legacy of story heritage.”
Former town administrator Bob Browning said that Smith left his mark on the Town of Jonesborough, as well.
Smith was a visionary force, Browning said, from his time as a journalist with the Herald and Tribune to his role as mayor of Jonesborough to his impact as acting president of the International Storytelling Center.
“As mayor, Jimmy helped lead a work plan for the town of things they wanted to accomplish, including a tourism program, recreation and senior citizen program.” he said. “Jimmy has always been a pleasant person and he can’t be mean. He’s had so many things that people have done in opposition to him. But he never responds without kindness. He’s just a super wonderful person. He brought spirit to the town. He was always positive and trying to figure out ways to reach town goals.”
Additionally, Browning said that Smith was determined to build relationships with the people throughout the state and became very well known to those that had the honor of meeting him.
“He went to Nashville and developed relationships with those on Capitol Hill. Representative Lamar Alexander said that no matter what they could do to help Jimmy Neil Smith, they didn’t have to ask him, because he had a vi- sion for what direction the town should be in and a vision for the quality of life in the town,” Browning said. “Those in Nashville would always tell Jimmy ‘We know you’re going to figure out how to do this; the question is what part can we play in making it happen?’ Jimmy was always able to articulate the vision.”
Kiran Singh Sirah stepped into the role of International Storytelling Center president upon Smith’s retirement in 2012, after 40 years of service.
“I came to Jonesborough with big shoes to fill. In addition to founding the institution, Jimmy Neil was the brain behind the National Storytelling Festival,” he said. “I truly believe he was a visionary. He has the mind of a folklorist—always asking questions and being very present as he listens to the answers. He’s interested in hearing everyone’s stories.”
There have only ever been two presidents of ISC since it began its legacy all those years ago: Smith and Sirah.
“So much of ISC’s mission comes down to Jimmy Neil’s ability to craft a dream that many of us could come together to realize and build upon,” Sirah said. “I feel very grateful for everything Jimmy Neil has given us at ISC. Jimmy Neil has been a wonderful colleague. But more than anything, I treasure being his friend.”
Smith has left behind his own legacy woven into the pages of Jonesborough’s story and, according to Henley, it is a unique and irreplaceable one.
“I am so glad to have him. He is one of the finest and most wonderful people I’ve ever known in my life,” she said. “We’ve had some grand times. He is a truly extraordinary person.”