By Gina Stafford
A South Knoxville native, Cindy Ogle went to Gatlinburg looking for a little bit of career experience before moving on. Almost 39 years later, she’s still in Gatlinburg. And, in all that time, one day stands out against all others: Nov. 28, 2016.
“Monday, Nov. 28, is a date that forever changed the lives of so many of us in Gatlinburg, in surrounding communities and throughout Sevier County,” Ogle says. That was also the last day Ogle, Gatlinburg city manager since 1989, would see the Gatlinburg home she’d lived in for 18 years.
She left for work on the morning of Nov. 28 and, by that evening, had begun a marathon series of days working around the clock alongside other city officials at the emergency operations center activated in response to spreading wildfires.
“My husband, Bud, grabbed an overnight kit and went down to one of the hotels in Sevierville with our youngest daughter and granddaughters,” Ogle says. “He never dreamed he needed to collect anything else.”
The next morning, just before she was to join an 11 a.m. press conference, Ogle’s husband called.
“He had gone to try and find out what happened at our place. Past downed trees and power poles, he made his way until he came to our small barn that is like his man cave. He approaches it, and it’s just fine, and he’s like, ‘Wow, we should be OK,’ ” Ogle says. “Then he rounds the corner and sees our house has burned to the ground.”
Ogle found a quiet corner, had “just a little bit of a meltdown,” then pulled herself together and headed for the press conference. But, before it began, word came that Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner’s house and business both were destroyed. At that point, Ogle says, she and Werner made a pact.
“We said, ‘We’re making a pact right now to focus on this city that we love and are dedicated and committed to serving. That’s what we have to do, and that’s what we are going to do.”
And they did.
After a couple of weeks, the daily press conferences had stopped, and national news outlets had moved on. The city had been served by almost 160 firefighting and first responder agencies from across Tennessee, representing 1,012 personnel using 263 pieces of equipment. Gov. Bill Haslam, who described the wildfires as the worst fire disaster in the history of the state, made multiple visits. So did both of Tennessee’s U.S. Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker (Knoxville ’74); and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (HSC ’70).
“I remember Congressman Roe saying to me, ‘Cindy, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to be a long process,’ ” Ogle says. “Well, I’m a sprinter and I like to get things done, but I’ve had to get used to the idea this is going to be a marathon and that’s how it is.”
But there is a silver lining, one Ogle didn’t foresee.
“We knew we’re a popular destination. People have a love and attachment to Gatlinburg and these mountains—I had it growing up in South Knoxville, as a UT student, and I know people throughout the state have lots of memories and connections to this place,” Ogle says, “but what has been unexpected and overwhelming, in a very good way, is the realization of the love, compassion and support for our city from the entire country, really. That love. The support of family and friends. Learning how much people care. That’s what got us through the horrific initial days, and it’s what’ll get us through this marathon and be better on the other side.”
Cindy Ogle (Knoxville ’73, ’78) has been Gatlinburg, Tennessee, city manager since 1989 and is the longest-serving city manager in Gatlinburg history.