The Dolly You Don’t Know


You all know Dolly Parton, the entertainment mega star appearing on the Van Wezel stage October 16. She has won every major award as a performer and songwriter from Country Performer of the Year to acceptance into the Song Writers Hall of Fame.  But there are as many facets to this woman as there are opportunities to succeed.  We are all aware of her career as an award-winning singer, composer and actress but the other side of Dolly is as an accomplished business woman and philanthropist.

As a businesswoman she founded and runs the Dollywood Company whose holdings include Dollywood, one of the world’s most successful international theme parks; two dinner theaters; Splash Country, a wildly successful water park; Dockside Plantation, a Honolulu restaurant; business ventures in Branson, MO and Myrtle Beach, Carolina and Sandollar Productions, a film and TV production company.  As a result she was recently named by Nashville Business “Country Music’s Wealthiest Star.”

The work of which she is most proud, however, is her charitable work with the Dollywood Foundation and her Imagination Library program.  The concept for the Imagination Library began when she was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee.  She knew her dreams would come true and she knew there were children in her community with their own dreams.  “They dream of becoming a doctor or an inventor or a minister.  Who knows, maybe there is a little girl whose dream is to become a writer and a singer.  The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.”

In 1966, Dolly launched an exciting new effort to benefit the children of her home county in East Tennessee.  She wanted to foster a love of reading among her county’s preschool children and their families. She wanted children to be excited about books and to feel the magic that books can create.  “It was my dream to insure that every child would have books, regardless of their family’s income.” She began by mailing a new age appropriate book each month to every child under 5 in Sevier County so that he/she could experience the joy of finding his/her very own book in each of their mail boxes.  These mailings continue each month until the child turns 5– and in the very last month the child receives Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come.

Needless to say, the experience has been a smashing success!  So much so, that other communities clamored to provide the Imagination Library to their children. Dolly thought long and hard about it and decided her Foundation should develop a way for other communities to participate.  The Foundation asked a blue ribbon panel of experts to select the right books and secured Penguin Group, USA to be the exclusive publisher for the Imagination Library. 

Consequently, in March of 2000 she stood at the podium of the National Press Club in Washington, DC and revealed the plan for other communities to provide the Imagination Library to their children.  And, as only Dolly can say it, she wanted to “put her money where her mouth is…and with such a big mouth that’s a pretty large sum of money.” Therefore, she personally provided books to all the children of Branson, Missouri, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – communities where her businesses now operate.  If other leaders in their communities were willing to do the same, well it might just happen…….and you know what?    IT DID!  The program is now spreading throughout the United States.

As a result of her work in education, she was awarded The Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service Work in Literacy, The American Publisher’s Honor Award, The Family Advocacy Award, The National Medal of Arts (the highest of such honor given by the US Government, which was presented by President George W Bush), the Kennedy Center Honors Award for a lifetime contribution to the Arts and the Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress for her contribution to our American Heritage.

In 2009 Dolly gave the commencement speech at the University of Tennessee College of Arts and Science.  During the ceremony she received an honorary degree, a “Doctorate of Humane and Musical Letters.”  It was only the second honorary degree given by the University and in presenting the degree, the Chancellor said “Because of her career not just as a musician and entertainer, but for her role model as a cultural ambassador, philanthropist and life-long advocate for education, it is fitting she be honored with an honorary degree from the flagship educational institute in her home state.”

As Dolly herself said, “not bad for a little country girl from the mountains of Tennessee.”