Dolly Parton
Country America
April 1996
"The Softer Side of Dolly"
By Bill Eftink

      Security is super tight at Dollywood this morning.  Just inside the roped off area is Country America's exclusive spot for a photo shoot—the ten feet of pathway between the picket fence surrounding Elf Land and the trellis marking the exit to Fantasy Land.  Dolly will pause but not pose as she tours the new children's attraction she's opening up today.
      It's a typical Dolly day.  Everything is planned and choreographed down to the split second.  So, three hours later, as you sit waiting in her dressing room, you're wondering why she's late.  You were supposed to have a half hour for an interview.  Somehow, that got whittled down to 20 minutes from 3:30 to 3:50 p.m.  Yet, here it is 3:45 p.m. and still no Dolly.  What makes it really strange is that all afternoon you've been getting updates that she's running 5, no 7 minutes, now almost 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
      At 3:50 she blows into the room, overwhelming everyone in it with a combination of folksy warmth and boardroom power.  A quick trip to the ladies' room and she's ready for a knee-to-knee, no-nonsense interview.  Today's topic: her latest program to help preschoolers in her home county of Tennessee learn to read.  The project is going to cost the Dollywood Foundation more than a million dollars to give all the children in Sevier County a book each month from the time they are born until they enter kindergarten.
      First question:  Why?  Why take on such an ambitious project?
      "Because I'm the luckiest person in the world," says Dolly.  "I've worked very hard, but I also know that a lot of people work hard and never get to see their dreams come true.  I just want every kid in this county to have the opportunity to be and do whatever they want to do."
      Sound a little corny?  Not when you hear Dolly say it.  She's sincere.  As her entourage filters out of the room, her metabolism shifts down a gear and she continues to talk about "her people."
      "I'm very, very proud of these people," she says, "and I hope they are proud of me.  Most everybody in these parts is poor, but being poor doesn't keep you from your dreams.  Lack of confidence or parents so busy they don't have time to make their children feel important are the things that stand between kids and their dreams.  My mother always encouraged me and believed in my dreams no matter how silly they seemed to other people.  I would always say things to her like, 'Oh, Mama, one of these days I'm gonna build you a house so big it'll take you two days to walk from the bedroom to the kitchen.'"
      Dolly is a dreamer but also a realist.  She know that some parents of the mountain families she's trying to help won't be able to read the new books she will be buying their children because their own schooling was cut short.
      "My father never had a chance to go to school, so he can't read or write," says Dolly.  "It's not so much of an embarrassment as it is a disadvantage.  If our family would have had this chance when I was a little girl, I'm sure Daddy would have said, 'Look, honey, I'm not able to read this to you, so let's go get your sister, who can read, to help us with it.'"
      But if there are disadvantages to living in the secluded valleys of the Smokey Mountains, Dolly is quick to point out that the young people there also have a lot of advantages.
      "You know, kids in this part of the country are very lucky in some ways.  Sure, they don't have a lot of money, but the people here are very loving and caring, and they have a great sense of pride," says Dolly.  "I sometimes think everybody here tries a little harder because they're just too proud to say they failed.  I also believe there's a big plus to just being surrounded by the great natural beauty of this area."
      Into this moment of softness, when the superstar business tycoon has let her guard down, you wonder out loud, "Dolly, why don't you have any children of your own?  Looking back, now that you've just turned 50, don't you regret that?"
      "Not really," she says.  "I've got more family than I can handle.  I've been married for 30 years.  In the early days, Carl and I used to think we wanted kids, and for years we didn't have any.  Now it's too late.  I realize that God didn't intend for me to have kids so I could be everybody's mama and everybody's granny.  I feel like it.  I have lots of kids.  I'm everybody's Aunt Granny, that's what they call me, you know, my nieces and nephews."
      Suddenly, Dolly realizes it's 4:03 p.m.  The spell is broken.  "Gotta go," she says, "I still have two interviews before the tree lighting ceremony.  Bye-bye.  Thanks."
      The softer side of Dolly swishes out the door with a smile and a wave.  She transforms back into Dolly the Institution.  She's made up a few minutes, and she's almost back on schedule.
      Speaking of schedules, why was she so late?  What possibly could have thrown steamroller Dolly Parton off schedule?  Executives, consultants, business meetings?
      "Well, she probably doesn't want me telling this," confides her public relations aide, "but she had us shave ten minutes off each interview so she could have a half hour to spend with four terminally ill kids with a wish here at the park today.  And you know Dolly, once she gets started visiting kids, she just can't get away."