“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Dolly Parton may joke about her looks, but the woman has proven repeatedly that she is far from cheap when it comes to sharing her wealth with others.
Dolly is a talented singer, songwriter, actress and entrepreneur. The fourth of 12 children, she was born in a one-room cabin in Tennessee, and her father paid the doctor with a bag of cornmeal.
She credits her mother’s family for her musical talents, and her father’s strong work ethic as inspiration for her own success. The Parton family was not wealthy, but music, faith and church were plentiful influences. Dolly began singing in church at age 6 and on radio and television programs when she was 10. “You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try,” she said.
She has won numerous awards and recognitions throughout her career, but her true legacy is the unselfish spirit that inspired several humanitarian efforts.
In 1991, she started the Buddy Program in her hometown to encourage teenagers to finish high school. Two friends sign a contract to support each other and graduate. Upon graduation, each receives $500. The dropout rate has decreased from 30% to 6%.
The Dollywood Foundation offers five scholarships of $15,000 each to local high school students annually. The My People Fund gave $1,000 a month for six months to families whose homes in Sevier County were destroyed by fires in 2016. Dollywood theme park employs 4,000 people and has cautiously reopened with limitations after closing because of COVID-19. Parton is aware of the financial responsibility to her employees and community. “I still believe, still trust God, and I’m still hoping for the best.” She also donated $1 million for COVID-19 research.
Imagination Library was inspired by Dolly’s father, Lee, who was illiterate, but was the smartest man she knew. She thought that if her father could have had access to books, his life may have been easier. Dolly decided to find a way for children to receive one free book a month until age 5. All those books could pave the way to a love of reading and education.
Starting in 1995 in Tennessee, the program spread throughout the United States, moving into other countries. To date, 140 million books have been mailed. “My daddy just loved it when all the little kids would call me ‘The Book Lady.’ That meant more to him than the fact that I had become a star.”
In a recent interview with Billboard magazine, Dolly’s optimism continues. Asked what change she would like to see in the next 100 years, she said, “If we could just be peaceful, if we could just try to work through things with a little more peace, a little more love, a little more harmony, a little more understanding. I pray about it every day. America gave us free speech, but you’ve got to be responsible for anything you say and do.”
Dolly turns 75 next year and has no plans to slow down. Her life continues to mirror the title of one of her most famous songs. It’s not just lip service, her actions deliver every day.
“I will always love you.”
• Karen Roth is a semi-retired librarian/educator living in Ottawa. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.