Volunteer Spotlight: Chuck Smith

Cheekwood Mansion

Volunteer Spotlight: Chuck Smith

Today is the start of National Volunteer Week!  Cheekwood has wonderful volunteers, and this week we want to spotlight our friend Chuck Smith.

Chuck’s mission at Cheekwood is to create wonder, enthusiasm, interest, and joy with our families, school children and visitors. He is our resident TRAINS! expert, and had a lot to do with ideas for the design of our miniature trains exhibit. He gets everyone excited to learn about the history of trains, maintains the exhibit, and is involved in special events held around that attraction. Chuck also serves in a leadership role as a member of Cheekwood’s Volunteer Committee as Special Events Chair and as Volunteer Captain for many events. He volunteers for a wide variety of assignments at Cheekwood including  community outreach, seasonal events that include plant science and gardening workshops, cultural events that include arts, crafts and skill-based activities, and he helps with education programming! Chuck attends all of our continuing education lectures and programming for volunteers, and is an integral team member as a volunteer liaison with our staff which expands our ability to serve our community. His friendliness, passion and patience exemplify the spirit of hospitality which embodies our mission at Cheekwood.

People often mistake Chuck for Cheekwood staff, as he is here every week working assignments that directly involve our guest experience. He is approachable and well informed as he greets and guides our guests and school groups through all we have to offer at Cheekwood. That includes understanding Cheekwood’s history in context to Nashville’s history, teaching about our varied gardens and plants, helping children explore creativity with arts activities, explaining the value of our art exhibits, our TRAINS! exhibit, and the significance of our cultural celebrations. His contributions directly serve our mission to “…stimulate the mind and nurture the spirit”.  Chuck’s leadership skills, outgoing nature, friendliness, thirst for knowledge, and infectious enthusiasm amplify Cheekwood’s impact and value.

Chuck shines when it comes to planning, organization, leadership skills, hospitality, and being in the moment. He volunteers in rain, sleet, cold, heat and many times for long hours without a complaint. He is an effective influencer among volunteers, a respected liaison with staff and an inspired ambassador for Cheekwood. His empathetic sensibility and creativity often take a singular situation and make it a special memory. As an example, during Holiday Lights when Santa was running late and there was a long line of anxious children and frustrated parents, Chuck started a sing-along that everyone joined in on. The mood completely changed, and spirits were elevated. Once Santa arrived and the line moved ahead, the grandmother of a child held back a minute and hugged Chuck saying, “You’re the reason we come to Cheekwood, because you show that you care about our experience.”

Another example of Chuck’s initiative is that he contributed to taking a small, neglected miniature trains exhibit into a major feature attraction at Cheekwood for children and families. Up until this past year there were few options, especially for little ones, here at Cheekwood outside of periodic programming. Chuck helped to grow the trains experience by being a part of the discussions and execution of our new expanded miniature woodland trains exhibit. Along with maintaining it and keeping it running, Chuck adds playful elements to the trains’ cargo that everyone loves to see. As a result of its unique popularity, now the exhibit has added features including a Thomas the Train playhouse adjacent to the trains, hands on play areas, and a storybook trail from the Thomas & Friends book series. Chuck gives information about TRAINS! to guests, trains some of our volunteers, is always on hand to take photos of families, and usually has an extra train whistle on hand to give to an excited child.

Chuck’s enthusiasm and abilities are a valuable asset to Cheekwood. He arrives early, often stays late, and helps if we need it. He thinks on his feet when there is a challenge and comes up with creative solutions that have a memorable and meaningful impact. For example, during our Spring Art Hop event, he saw a little girl parked in a cart in front of Visitor Services looking disappointed. The weather was a bit rainy, so her mother didn’t want her going outside to do the Easter egg hunt. He asked her if she found any eggs and she shook her head and tearfully said “no”.  He sprang into action and found some eggs, got a fellow staff member to distract her, snuck the eggs into her basket, then walked away and watched. She turned around and to her surprise her basket was full of eggs. She was so touched she started crying happy tears. Her mother was truly grateful and thanked Chuck. Chuck, a nominee for our 2019 Mary Catherine Strobel Award said, “Every person deserves attention and value and to be part of Cheekwood’s hospitality and experience. If I can be a positive part of that, then that creates a meaningful connection to who we are at Cheekwood, and I am honored to be a part of this community.” We are grateful to have a volunteer with such dedication to our mission that offers so many opportunities for our guests to feel welcome and to learn and grow!


Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a retired electrical engineer and happily married to my wife Marla for almost 40 years. We live in Franklin and love Tennessee.

What are your favorite hobbies, activities, or interests?

I always had an interest in lighting up for Christmas. As a kid I became convinced the house with the most lights would get the most presents from Santa, so I constantly begged my dad to put out more lights. After getting married I figured out how to control Christmas lights using a computer so I could put on a programmed show. Over the years our home became “that house” everyone went to see during the holidays. Things began getting a bit too crazy, and I had to hire off-duty police officers to direct traffic.  I no longer do extreme decorating, but slip something in my front yard during Christmas just to scare the neighbors I might be coming back.

Years ago, I saw a volunteer position for the Cheekwood TRAINS! and gave it a shot.  I immediately loved it and have been around the display ever since. I’m always adding little surprises to the trains area to keep the kids engaged. Keep an eye out for Pepto. She’s the pink elephant sometimes spotted riding the rails.

For a bit of fun I’ve been known to walk around Cheekwood wearing my train engineers cap and blowing a train whistle.

I really want to thank Jim Crossman for sponsoring TRAINS! Without his generous help the trains might not exist at Cheekwood.

In what ways have you been involved as a volunteer with Cheekwood so far?

Over the years I’ve volunteered for most everything…except pulling weeds. Interacting with the guests is so much fun because they’re always in a good mood when visiting Cheekwood.

Why did you become a volunteer?

I discovered Cheekwood volunteering when I helped in 2013 setting up the LIGHT: Installations by Bruce Munro. Cheekwood became quite magical after dark.

What have you enjoyed the most about your volunteer experience?

Interacting with the kids puts the bounce in my step. The look of wonder in the child’s eye and their eagerness to learn makes it fun.

Is there a funny or inspirational story you can briefly tell about your volunteer experience?

During Spring Art Hop I’ll slip a few Easter eggs in my pocket and stroll around campus. When I see a child especially frustrated with life, I’ll discretely drop an egg and ask if it belongs to them. It always does and suddenly they’re happy.

What is your favorite garden or area at Cheekwood and Why?

Such an easy question!  I love the Turner Seasons Garden since that’s where the TRAINS! display is located.

Many mornings I’ll arrive early to go work on the trains. The air is crisp and I enjoy walking the grounds when it’s only me, the birds, and more chipmunks than I can count. Trust me, it’s pretty close to heaven on earth.

What is your favorite room or area in the Historic Mansion & Museum, Frist Learning Center, or Botanic Hall? Why?

The Botanic Hall Massey Auditorium is my favorite indoor venue. During non-pandemic times, I love to help the kids decorate gingerbread houses during the holidays.

Do you have a favorite art piece at Cheekwood, or, if not, a favorite exhibition that Cheekwood has hosted? Is there a reason you like it?

I was quite fond of the giant inflatable rabbits years ago because they were just so whimsical and totally unexpected. I did feel bad for the staff when storms rolled through and the bunnies would try to fly.

Do you have any advice for individuals considering volunteering with Cheekwood?

Volunteering is very much a mindset and can be intimidating in the beginning. There’s so much you don’t know yet, but you really want to make a good impression. Relax. Enjoy the Cheekwood experience. Ask questions and you’ll soon feel right at home.

Are you interested in volunteering at Cheekwood? Click here to learn more!


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