By Jay Mayfield
There was something familiar about the way Rocky Top wafted through the pillars and beams of Thompson-Boling Arena, with thousands of students tacking the obligatory “woo!” onto the chorus.
But for all the familiarity of the scene, it was part of a day unlike any other in the history of UT Knoxville. On May 8, Dolly Parton, known worldwide not only for her musical and songwriting talent but for her philanthropic work, was granted an honorary doctorate of humane and musical letters. In the process, she gave a speech and performance that are already the stuff of campus lore.
The news that Parton would be honored at the commencement ceremony of the College of Arts and Sciences had created a buzz across the state, country, and world. A CNN International crew followed Dolly’s every move on campus, and media coverage of the event that led to what was surely UT’s first mention by infamous celebrity blogger Perez Hilton (his was a kind note of congratulations). In fact, interest in the event was so high that tickets were distributed in advance to graduates and their families – another first.
While her performances of Rocky Top brought the house down, her remarks to the crowd that day provided a particularly poignant reflection on the importance of education in her own life. She built her remarks around the mission statement of her Dollywood Foundation, encouraging graduates to “dream more, care more, do more, and be more.”
You’ve probably heard of Dolly’s signature philanthropic work, the Imagination Library. It provides a new book every month to children from birth to five years old, and in her remarks, Parton’s passion for learning and the power of literacy was clear.
“I learned to love reading when I was just a tiny little thing,” said Dolly. “It’s my belief that if you can read, even if you don’t get a chance to have an education, you can learn about everything.”
That passion has led to her Imagination Library program providing books to hundreds of thousands of children, including young people in all 95 Tennessee counties. In addition, she’s worked tirelessly in Sevier County, even creating a program in the 1990s to reduce high school dropout rates. How did Dolly do it? By offering students a $500 check, in person, no questions asked if they and a buddy made it from 8th grade to graduation. The program reduced dropout rates at the high school from 30 percent to just 6 percent.
As UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek put it just before Dolly received her degree, “Because of her career as an entertainer, musician, and songwriter, and for her role as a cultural ambassador, philanthropist and lifelong advocate for education, it is fitting that she be honored with a degree from the flagship educational institution of her own state.”
It’s that commitment and passion for education – at all levels – that made this honor for her so fitting and appropriate. Dolly never had the chance to attend college, instead moving to Nashville after graduating high school. A career like Dolly’s is perhaps the textbook case of a life’s work that is worthy of an honorary degree.
The raucous applause for Dolly as she was formally granted the degree spoke just as loudly as the response for Rocky Top did. We love Dolly not just for her entertainment, but for her life, for her passion, and for her story. The graduates, faculty and their families – many UT alumni in their ranks – made it official: Dolly’s now a proud citizen of Big Orange Country, and we couldn’t be happier to have her.
You can find video of Dolly’s performance and speech along with the formal presentation of her degree at http://www.youtube.com/UniversityTennessee.