But once people get “past the shock of the ridiculous way I looked and all that,” she told Barbara Walters in 1977, “they would see there was parts of me to be appreciated.”
She’s more than appreciated by the people of fire-ravaged Sevier County, Tenn., where Parton was raised and where she built Dollywood, and for whose benefit she organized in a matter of weeks a telethon that aired Dec. 13 with, among others, Kenny Rogers, Don McLean, Cyndi Lauper, Reba McEntire, Hank Williams Jr., Amy Grant and Alison Krause.
So far it’s brought in about $9 million for victims of the Tennessee inferno that consumed Gatlinburg in Sevier County in late November.
Parton’s “My People Fund” has promised a $1,000 donation each month, for up to six months, for every family left homeless by the fires.
In a video interview she prepared to promote the telethon, she recalled hearing about the fires while on the tour.
“Of course I ran immediately into my dressing room to turn on the TV to see if it was really true because people were saying ‘Oh my God, you know the mountains are burning.’ And I said, ‘oh that can’t be, not to that degree.’ And sure enough,” she said, “I mean, it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen because at that time, I didn’t know if my own blood kin were engulfed in the flames. I didn’t really know if our business is there. . . . It looked like the world was on fire and I was absolutely going to pieces like we all did.”
“Everybody on the phone trying to reach everybody. . . . And it took hours and hours for us to really know for sure that our own family was okay and that most of our properties, we were blessed and thank God for it, that most of our businesses were okay and our families were okay.”
Giving is nothing new for Parton. Underneath the aw-shucks, who-me persona is a serious woman, now 70, and one of the most philanthropic celebrities around.
In 2006, the Associated Press pointed out that while “much of her philanthropy has been anonymous” (or at least done quietly), it includes such gifts as the $60,000 she provided per year for disadvantaged Sevier County high school students, something she has done in varying amounts since the 1970s.
And the program she created that offered $500 to children in the county who both graduated high school and convinced a classmate not to drop out.
Not to mention the $100,000 she donated in 1997 to open the Dolly Parton Birthing Unit at the LeConte Medical Center in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., so expectant mothers wouldn’t have to drive all the way to Knoxville when their time came.
Even at the time, she seemed to play off this last donation in her joking, flirty way.
“Lordy, Lordy, I don’t know nothing about birthing babies!” she said, according to the Deseret News. “Just think of all the babies who’ll be born in Sevier County at the Dolly Parton unit. It’s a great compliment.”
Easily her most wide-reaching philanthropic work is Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, one of the country’s largest literacy projects, which she funded partially with proceeds from Dollywood, according to Forbes.
To her, it was important that children be afforded the opportunity to read, regardless of their parents’ income level.
The Imagination Library began in 1995 with a simple goal: Mail one book, each month, to every child in Sevier County from birth to age 5 so “she could ensure that every child would have books, regardless of their family’s income.”
The program was so successful that in 2000, she offered to expand it to any community that would partner with her to support such a program.
The program is now global, found in some 1,600 communities across the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. It now sends more than 1 million books to children across the world, every month.
Her commitment to these causes, in particular, to the library, stems from her own upbringing, she has said.
Parton was one of 12 children raised by a tobacco farmer. Neither of her parents were educated and the family lived in abject poverty, an experience that has informed her songs as well.
“My mother was married when she was in the seventh grade, so a lot of my people didn’t get a chance to get an education,” she told the Associated Press in 2006. “Imagination Library was really born out of my need to try to help people knowing what a handicap it was with a lot of my relatives.”
In 1971, she opened arguably her most well-regarded record, “Coat of Many Colors,” with a track speaking directly to poverty. (It was adopted into a TV movie 44 years later). In this title track, she told the story of a coat her mother made her from discarded rags.
In one verse, she sang:
My coat of many colors
That my mama made for me
Made only from rags
But I wore it so proudly
Although we had no money
I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My mama made for me
Though it might sound like poetic license, it was anything but. She described her upbringing in AARP magazine: “ . . . We grew our own food. Daddy would get up in the morning and work till he had to go to his job doing construction,” Parton said. “Then he’d come home and still be working on the farm till way after dark. We used to soak Daddy’s old feet. Mama had some kind of salve she’d made up for Daddy’s hands because they’d crack and bleed, and I remember rubbing Daddy’s hands with it.”
And she told Entertainment Today, “I think my childhood made me everything I am today. I would trade nothing for being brought up in the Great Smoky Mountains. I’ve never been ashamed of my people no matter how poor or dirty we might have been. I’ve always loved being from where I am, and having the folks that I’ve had.”
She believes that if her father had been educated her early life might have been easier.
“He couldn’t write his own name. He wouldn’t even recognize our names if he saw it on a paper, but my dad was one of the smartest people I knew. He just didn’t have an opportunity to get an education,” Parton said about 10 years ago.
Recently she gave Evey Johns, a two-year-old in Arkansas, a $30,000 scholarship to go to college on the occasion of her becoming the millionth child to be enrolled in Parton’s Imagination Library. It will be held in a special fund that will gather interest, so the scholarship could grow to $50,000.
Until now, the child’s mother, Connie Johns, said “the thought of our daughter Evey going to college has been just that — a thought.” Now, she told Taste of Country, her family “has the means to develop a solid plan for our daughter’s future education.”
It’s obligatory to say that what’s good for the folks of Sevier County, Tenn., is good for Dolly Parton. She’s still making albums, the most recent called “Pure and Simple,” and she’s still doing concerts.
That said, her efforts to help out prompted a lot of people to reconsider Dolly Parton and even say sorry.
“I’ll be honest,” writer and Knoxville, Tenn., blogger Amy Rawe wrote on Dec. 8 in an “Open “Apology to Dolly Parton,” which quickly went viral. “I used to think you were a bimbo. I used to think you flaunted your big boobs, teased hair, tiny waist, and your syrupy-sweet southern accent to sell yourself and your brand as a country singer.
” . . . Dolly, I’m sorry I didn’t get you sooner — and I thank you for all you are, and all that you do.”
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