The way Patty McMullen Wissinger ’82 MPA ’98 sees it, her job and the role of her fellow employees in the National Park Service is to connect Americans to their national parks and expose them to the natural beauty that lies within, so when she and her colleagues in Great Smoky Mountains National Park were told to close the park during the October federal government shutdown, it was disturbing. “Everything we do is connected with bringing people into the parks, so to turn around and keep people out was indescribable,” said Wissinger, the new deputy superintendent in the Smokies, a little more than half a million acres of Southern Appalachian wilderness lying on the North Carolina-Tennessee border a half-hour drive northwest of the WCU campus. Wissinger recalls a family that came all the way from Israel to visit the Smokies during the shutdown and how disappointed they were that they couldn’t go hiking. “It was really awful. We sincerely hope that nothing like the shutdown ever happens again,” she said.
A native of Charlotte, Wissinger fell in love with parks as a young girl. “I knew at a pretty early age that I wanted to work with parks and natural resources,” she said. When she was about 12 years old, her family went on a trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Mount Mitchell area. “I remember vividly the feeling that came over me, looking out the family station wagon window at the scenery up there and thinking I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life, and that somehow or some way I was going to be connected to that,” she said. Wissinger was a volunteer at a Charlotte nature museum as a student in junior high and high school, and when it came time to pick a college, she chose WCU because of its proximity to the Smokies and the parkway. While in Cullowhee, she took advantage of the outdoor outings offered to students and spent most weekends outside with friends. She also participated in internships and the cooperative work program that allowed her to gain valuable experience working in nearby parks so that when she left WCU with her bachelor’s degree in geography she transitioned immediately to a job as a parkway ranger in the Peaks of Otter area in Virginia.
During her 33 years as a career NPS employee, Wissinger has served in management positions on the parkway and at Shenandoah National Park, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Wright Brothers National Memorial and Fort Raleigh Historic Site. She has twice worked in the NPS Southeast Regional Office – one time as the region’s chief of partnerships for more than 63 parks and on another occasion as manager for the National Heritage Area Program. Before coming to the Smokies in September, she held the top job – superintendent – at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in Atlanta. Wissinger spent 18 years working out of Asheville, where her three daughters grew up and she earned her graduate degree in public affairs from WCU. She says the WCU program was extremely valuable to her career because she “learned a lot about the art of navigating through bureaucracy.”
Wissinger’s daughters grew up hiking, camping and backpacking, and she says they still treasure memories of family trips to the Smokemont and Deep Creek areas in the Smokies. She has seen the impact that exposure to the natural world can have on young people and remembers one instance in particular. It happened when she was working for the parkway from Asheville and a “tough-talking” group of middle school kids from Raleigh had been brought in for a visit. “We tried different things with them and they weren’t really paying attention and thought we were sort of hokey,” she said. “But then we got on a bus with them and started going up the mountain, and as we got higher, all the tough talk and screaming and yelling started turning into ‘ooos’ and ‘ahhhs’ and ‘wows.’ And then they got completely silent. You could almost see those kids being changed by what they saw. The more we can get the next generation out there and appreciating these natural resources that are larger than all of us, I think the more they’re going to appreciate life in general.”
With her office located at Smokies headquarters just outside Gatlinburg, Tenn., Wissinger is living on the Tennessee side of the park and will be joined there in the near future by her soon-to-be-retired husband, Gordon Wissinger, who formerly was district ranger in the Cades Cove area of the Smokies and is currently an NPS deputy regional director. Patty Wissinger said she deals with a wide array of issues in her job on a daily basis, and she has found over the years that upward movement in parks administration brings with it increased time at the desk and on the phone. But relief for her is not far away. “If it gets too bad, I can just walk out the door and be on one of the greatest trails in America,” she said.