A giant who stands only 5 feet tall
Although the six mile long bridge which carries four lanes of Interstate 65 northeast of Mobile, Alabama, is named in honor of General W. F. Wilson Jr., the bridge is not always referred to by his name. Owing to its red warning lights on top of two, adjacent, high steel arches, it is commonly known as the “Dolly Parton Bridge.”
Its namesake was born as the fourth of twelve children, in a one room cabin in Pittsman Center, Tennessee. She began playing music at age 7, on a homemade guitar. While performing as a child at the Grand Ole Opry, she met Johnny Cash. He encouraged her to follow her dream of becoming a professional entertainer. The day after she graduated high school, she moved to Nashville. She spent the next three years as a struggling songwriter. She sought to record her own songs, but her record company told her that her voice was not well suited to country music. Eventually, she landed a job performing on Porter Wagner’s weekly television show. That led to a string of successful duet recordings with Wagner, between 1968 and 1973. During that period, Parton recorded “Jolene.” In 1974, her song “I Will Always Love You,” topped the country music chart. Elvis Presley wanted to record the song, but his manger insisted that Parton sign over half the publishing rights. She wisely refused. Many years later, Whitney Houston recorded the song for the 1992 film, The Bodyguard, and the song spent 14 weeks as Billboard Number 1.
The rest, of course, is history. Dolly Parton has composed over 3,000 songs. She and Reba McEntire share the record for most Billboard chart Number 1 country music songs, at 25. She holds the record for the most Top 10 county albums, has been nominated for 49 Grammy Awards, and has won 9 of them. She is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriter Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. She has not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has received the Kennedy Center Honors, and the National Medal of Arts, the highest arts honor presented by the United States government.
Everyone knows about Dolly Parton’s success as a songwriter, musician, actor, and singer. Much less is known about her lifelong dedication, to helping those in need. Many Hollywood celebrities (through their agents and publicists) make headlines with their “red carpet” outfits, their Twitter comments, and occasional donations to “politically correct” charities. Dolly Parton avoids the spotlight; her generosity does all the talking.
For nearly 40 years, Parton has operated her Dollywood Foundation, which donates books through her Imagination Library, to nearly 850,000 children, each month. She was the first person ever awarded the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, in recognition of her work to improve literacy. In 2018, Parton was honored by the Library of Congress, on the occasion of her foundation sending out its 100 millionth book. When University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Chancellor James Cheek presented her with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, he stated that she was honored “because of her career, not just as a musician and entertainer, but for her role as a cultural ambassador, philanthropist and lifelong advocate for education.”
Her generosity extends far beyond literacy. She has received the Partnership Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in recognition of her work to preserve and protect the bald eagle. In response to the damage and loss resulting from the 2016 Great Smokey Mountain wildfires, Parton participated in one telethon, and hosted another, raising millions for victims.
Much of Parton’s charitable work has been directed to her native, East Tennessee. Parton pledged $500,000 toward the cost of a proposed $90 million dollar hospital near her hometown, in the name of the local physician, who delivered her. She is a co-owner of the Dollywood Company, which operates the “Dollywood” theme park, in Pidgeon Forge. Between 2009 and 2018, Amusement Today magazine (a leading magazine in the theme park industry) presented Dollywood with the magazine’s annual fan-voted “Golden Ticket Award” 10 times in a row, for “Best Shows in the Business.” In 2019, Dollywood received the first award ever presented by that magazine, for “Best Guest Experience.”
The fruits of Parton’s generosity have now reached far beyond Tennessee. In April of 2020, Parton donated one million dollars to fund virus research at Vanderbilt University. She tweeted that her longtime friend, Dr. Naji Abumrad, was making advances, and she encouraged her fans to support the research for a cure. In November of 2020, when it was announced that the Vanderbilt University research led to the Moderna vaccine, Dr. Abumrad told the Washington Post “without a doubt in my mind, her funding made the research toward the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it.”
Although Dolly Parton stands only 5 feet tall, she is unquestionably a giant in the entertainment business. In a career spanning over 50 years, she has received virtually every conceivable award in country music, and has been admitted into a least 16 separate “Halls of Fame.” More important than any of that, Dolly Parton never forgot her humble beginnings, and devoted her success and her fortune to helping others in need.
On top of all that, she even has a bridge named after her.
William P. Carlucci is a local attorney and past president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.