Dolly’s Loving Legacy

By Jackie Sheckler Finch | Photography courtesy of Dollywood Foundation and Jackie Sheckler Finch

Childhood literacy is near and dear to Dolly Parton’s heart and her Imagination Library is a loving legacy that reaches 1.4 million children a month.

Growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains, Dolly Parton read a book that helped change her life. Although her father couldn’t read or write, he encouraged his children to embrace education and was proud to see his daughter enjoy “book learning.”
“I am ‘The Little Engine That Could,’” Parton says. “That is my favorite book, next to the Bible.”
The classic story tells the tale of a determined little engine that, despite its size, triumphantly pulls a train full of toys to the waiting children on the other side of the mountain.
“It was always my dream to be a star, to travel around the world,” Parton says.
Although the odds may have been against her, Parton succeeded in her dreams to become one of the world’s best-known and most-beloved entertainers. She also created a program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, to help other children dream and succeed.
“I never in a million years thought we would help give away more than 120 million books. The kids call me the Book Lady,” Parton says. “I know a lot of times I get all the credit but, really and truly, it’s the local Imagination Library sponsors that deserve all of the credit for our success.”

Imagination Library Grows Each Year
Currently 1.4 million children receive a book each month. Through the program, children enrolled the first month after birth receive a free, brand-new, age-appropriate book once a month in the mail. The first book is “The Little Engine That Could.” The last book when a child turns 5 is “Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come.”
“At the end of the program, each child has a 60-volume library,” says David Dotson, CEO of the not-for-profit Dollywood Foundation. “There are currently 1,700 communities in five countries participating in the program. There is at least one participating community in all 50 states.”
In Hernando, Mississippi, the city will be hosting its ninth annual “Water Tower 10K” road race on Oct.12 to raise funds for the Hernando Excel By 5 – Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
“Last year, we were able to raise $19,000,” says Gia Matheny, Hernando Community Development Director. “We had 380 plus participants from seven states, over 40 cities and one runner from Germany.”
Hernando has participated in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library since 2014 with 497 children enrolled in 2018. “Our goal is to enroll children once they are born,” Matheny says. “We work closely with Baptist Hospital DeSoto and Porter-Leath in Memphis to identify children from our city.”
Hernando also worked with the Board of Education to add a question on the kindergarten reading assessment asking if the child was enrolled in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program.
“Those that were identified had higher reading scores,” Matheny says. “We are proud to be able to offer the books to our youngest citizens and give them a jump start on their education.”
In Memphis, Imagination Library has joined forces with Porter-Leath, a nonprofit organization that oversees Head Start classrooms and services in partnership with Shelby County Schools. The program aims to give parents the tools they need to be their child’s first teachers.
Parton says it is important to help children develop a love for reading while they are young. “That’s when they are most impressionable,” she says. “I know how, if you can read, you can self-educate yourself.”
Poor in Money, Rich in Love
The fourth of 12 children of Robert Lee and Avie Lee (Owens) Parton, Dolly Parton was born and raised in a ramshackle cabin in Sevier County, Tennessee. The local country doctor, Dr. Robert F. Thomas, who delivered Parton on Jan. 19, 1946, was paid a sack of cornmeal for his work.
The family struggled to make a living, but life was good, Parton says. “You know, we had it kind of hard, but not any more than most folks. I had an incredible family, and we had so much love, we didn’t know we were poor.”
Music was an important part of Parton family life. Before she learned to read or write, Dolly Parton was “making up” her own songs. “My Momma used to write down rhymes I would make,” she says.
When she was about 3 years old, Parton “wrote” a ditty for her dolly. “The first song I ever wrote was called ‘Little Tiny Tassel Top’ about a doll my Daddy made me out of a corn cob,” she recalls. “It had corn silk for hair, and he burned in two eyes with a fireplace poker.”
When Parton was 7 years old, her Uncle Bill Parton gave her a guitar. Three years later, she got a big radio job.
“My first break came from a gentleman named Cas Walker in Knoxville,” Parton says. “He had a chain of grocery stores, but he also had a radio show on every day. He hired me.”
Her career steadily climbed and in 1959, Parton made her debut at the Grand Ole Opry.
The day after she graduated from high school in 1964, the 18-year-old packed her cardboard suitcase and moved to Nashville to seek her fortune – and found her husband.

“I met Carl my first day in Nashville at the Wishy-Washy Laundromat,” she says. Owner of an asphalt paving business in Nashville, Carl Dean has always shunned publicity.
Dolly’s initial success came as a songwriter, writing hit songs for Skeeter Davis and Hank Williams Jr. About this time, Porter Wagoner was looking for a new “girl singer” for his syndicated television show. Dolly accepted the job in 1967, signed with RCA Records in 1968, and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. Her career was in high gear.
After several hit duos with Wagoner, Dolly left the show in 1974, writing the song “I Will Always Love You” for Wagoner. It reached No. 1 for the first time in 1974.
Not a day goes by that she doesn’t write, Dolly says. In 2006, she was recognized by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for her lifetime of contributions to the performing arts.

Helping Her Smoky Mountain Hometown
Despite all the awards and international acclaim, Dolly has never forgotten her roots. In the early 1980s, she began musing about projects to help her Tennessee hometown.
“I was thinking I wanted to give something back to the area where I was born,” Dolly says.
The result was Dollywood Family Amusement Park in 1986 in Pigeon Forge. The name had stuck in Dolly’s mind from her first visit to Los Angeles. She had looked up at the landmark Hollywood sign and thought, “I would like to change that H into a D.’’
But she hastens to add that the theme park is “much more about the mountains and the people who live there than it is about me. I saw Dollywood as a chance to honor them… It brought a lot of jobs to the area for my kinfolk and others to work.”
In 1987 came Dolly Parton’s Stampede dinner theater with an emphasis on down-home cooking and a modern-day Wild West revue. The 299-room DreamMore Resort & Spa opened in 2015 next door to Dollywood.
Dolly herself has produced a children’s picture book, “Coat of Many Colors,” based on her hit song of the same title. The story tells of a coat she owned as a child that her mother had stitched together out of many different pieces of cloth. Although the other children at school made fun of her, Dolly took pride in her coat and the love that her mother had sewed into it. Her mother died in December 2003. Her father died in 2000.
Visitors to Chasing Rainbows, the museum devoted to Dolly’s life history at Dollywood, can see a replica of that childhood coat, as well as family photos and other memorabilia.
As part of a desire to give back to her hometown, Parton started Imagination Library in 1996 in Sevier County. “Since the program started in 1996, we have had literally thousands of letters and emails expressing how the family could not otherwise afford books, how excited their children are when the books arrive in the mail and how the child developed a lifelong passion for reading and learning,” says Dotson, Dollywood Foundation’s CEO.
“Our plan is to have 10 percent of all children under 5 enrolled in the program by 2023,” Dotson says. “We are currently at 6.5 percent.”
An avid reader, Parton says she prefers the peaceful pursuit of reading. “I read everything…I really love a good story,” she says. “I like to read and let my imagination go.”

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.