A career of ‘firsts’ for Sheryl Ely

Larry Van GuilderOur Town Leaders

The chief executive, especially a new one, is well served when surrounded by accomplished professionals. Former Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero recognized the talents of Sheryl Ely, promoting her to direct Parks and Recreation, and now Mayor Indya Kincannon benefits from Rogero’s judgment.


Ely has been part of the city government for 4 1/2 years and in charge of Parks and Recreation for 2 1/2 years. Those years are distinguished by a couple of “firsts:” The first African American female to serve as deputy director of Public Service, her first position with the city, and the first female Parks and Recreation director.

Before joining Knoxville city government Ely was a senior planner for the city of Oak Ridge. She worked as a community planner and later as a regional planning director, “from Tellico to Jellico,” over a 10-year span for the state of Tennessee. Ely was the first African American female local planning office director for the state.

Sandwiched between her positions with Oak Ridge and the state was a two-year stint with the Knox County Health Department where she put to work her bachelor’s degree in community health education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Ely has also earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Tennessee.

Parks and Recreation currently employs 54 full-time workers and “hundreds more” during the outdoor recreation seasons. The city has 94 parks, plus recreation and senior centers. Every facility, Ely says, gives kids and adults the opportunity for recreation and increased wellness.

Working together with communities is important, she says. Residents involved in plans early on are more likely to support the department’s projects. Ely noted that Mayor Kincannon would like to see more community involvement.

Moving ahead, Ely expects to see more greenways and natural trails in the city. Her schedule also includes meeting with Knox County’s parks and recreation administrators nearly every month.

It’s fitting that during Black History Month we have the opportunity to introduce our readers to this distinguished African American professional, Sheryl Ely.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.     

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