The legacy left by Outdoor Chattanooga Executive Director Philip Grymes can be seen throughout Chattanooga in the faces of residents and visitors flocking to area rivers and mountains to enjoy the outdoors he loved so much.
Grymes, 49, died Wednesday following a two-year battle with cancer, but friends and former coworkers said he lives on through his work championing the outdoors and making it accessible to everyone.
"Philip's contributions to Chattanooga in nurturing our outdoor community were invaluable," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said. "He will be terribly missed. We look forward to honoring his legacy and passion for the outdoors in our future work at Outdoor Chattanooga."
A native of Richmond, Virginia, Grymes' connection to Chattanooga began in 1996, when he was hired by Mike Pollack, Rob Piper and David Hoover as the first full-time employee of The Adventure Guild. Pollack said Grymes lived with him for a short time after moving to the Chattanooga area, and his love for the outdoors and his "can-do" spirit was evident from the very beginning.
While at The Adventure Guild, Grymes worked on the groups' challenge rope course, managed the Walnut Wall climbing area at Coolidge Park and became a rock climbing instructor and guide. This work drew the attention of then-Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker and city Parks and Recreation Director Rob Healy, who brought Grymes on to lead the newly-formed Outdoor Chattanooga and help build interest in and the use of the area's outdoor resources.
"He just did an incredible job of teaching people the skills they needed," Healy said. "He always had a smile on his face, was always positive and was always interested in protecting and having people use the wonderful outdoor amenities we have in this area. He wanted people engaged with that, but also conserving it."
Pollack said one of Grymes' goals was to bring outdoor recreation to underserved and underrepresented populations and make the area's beauty accessible to everyone.
"He did a lot of work in his early days working with groups like [YMCA Community Action Project] and working through the community centers," Pollack said. "Working with kids who might otherwise not be exposed to the outdoors. He had so much heart for that kind of work."
Grymes was instrumental in the planning and development of the Outdoor Chattanooga offices at Coolidge Park, and former Mayor Ron Littlefield said that Grymes built a team at Outdoor Chattanooga that made work fun for everyone who came in contact with the Outdoor Chattanooga staff.
"I just know that whenever anything got too dull or boring around the mayor's office, I'd take off and go to the Outdoor Chattanooga offices," Littlefield said. "Philip and his staff would always have a bunch of kids and interns, and the things they were doing were so interesting and uplifting. It just lifted anybody's spirit just to be there."
During his 15 years at Outdoor Chattanooga, Grymes was instrumental in bringing several large outdoor events to Chattanooga. Pollack said Grymes played a major role — often behind the scenes — in helping the city develop events such as Swim the Suck, Head of the Hooch, Ironman and more, bringing the area national and international acclaim as an outdoor destination.
"His service to the outdoor community led to Chattanooga being named the best outdoor city for so many years by Outside magazine," Pollack said. "Philip was the unsung hero that made that all happen. There's a lot of others who wanted us to have those things here, but he's the one who got it done."
Littlefield also commended Grymes' work connecting the Chattanooga area's resources with the people who use them and will ultimately be asked to protect them for future generations.
"It's easy to create all the infrastructure that we have here, but you have to be able to connect that infrastructure to people," he said. "That's the missing link, and that's what Philip did. He had young people kayaking and canoeing. Also the bicycle program here — that was undeveloped and uncharted territory.
"Philip found a way to connect all this to people, and usually through children."
Looking ahead, Littlefield said that Grymes' death will leave a major void in the Chattanooga outdoor community as well as with his many family and friends.
"I'm not really sure that Philip can be replaced," Littlefield said. "I know that sounds over the top, but he had so many qualities that lent themselves well to the job that he had. I'd sure hate to be the person that tries to fill his shoes.
"He set the bar very high."