When I lived in Knoxville the first time (1982-1986), I was a teenager who didn’t pay much attention to things of local importance with the exception of the 1982 World’s Fair.
What I did know, because everyone knew, was that Dolly Parton was East Tennessee’s favorite daughter (she is from Sevierville). You can say what you want about this area but you never, ever, ever, ever mess with Dolly. I have never been a huge fan of country music, so back when I was in my teens I mostly enjoyed her in the movie “9 to 5” and as Kenny Rogers’ best duet partner. (I know, “Islands in the Stream” is a country song, but it crossed over and I heard it on my radio stations!) Gradually I started to pay attention to Dolly’s philanthropic activity, and have been amazed by her for decades.
In 1986, Dolly became an investor in what was the Silver Dollar City theme park in Pigeon Forge, just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It opened that season as Dollywood, which is now the largest employer in that area of East Tennessee. In addition to Dollywood, one can visit Dollywood’s Splash Country (water park), Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, and Dollywood’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction.
You’ve probably heard about Dolly in the news over the past couple of weeks because her Imagination Library, which sends free books to children from infancy to age five, just delivered its 100 millionth book. The Imagination Library started out in 1995 as a local effort in honor of her father, who couldn’t read or write. Eventually it grew into a nationwide program.
What you may not know is that even before the Imagination Library, Dolly was helping local students. The high school dropout rate in Sevier County back in the late 1980s was a staggering thirty percent. Through her Dollywood Foundation, Dolly began the Buddy Program. The idea was that students would choose an accountability partner and when both students in each pair graduated from high school, they each received a $500 check from Dolly herself. This program brought the dropout rate all the way down to six percent. More graduations mean more advancement and growth in East Tennessee. Her investment in this program has always been an investment in the future of her home.
After the November 2016 fires in Gatlinburg, Dolly not only took part in a telethon to benefit the affected families and businesses but then put on her own telethon, raising over nine million dollars.
I have only scratched the surface on this woman’s good deeds and that’s why she is royalty in East Tennessee. It’s for that reason that I have wanted to visit the Dolly Parton statue in Sevierville, and yesterday I finally took the time to drive up there. The statue was created by artist Jim Gray in 1987 and sits outside the Sevierville Courthouse. The likeness is incredible; it’s amazing to see up close.
I know that there are lots of other cities and regions in the country that claim favorite daughters and sons, but I don’t think there’s anything in the world like the love East Tennessee has for Dolly Parton. I look forward to hearing about her next move!