Entertainment legend, philanthropist and East Tennessee native Dolly Parton was honored on May 8 with only the second honorary degree granted by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
The degree, a doctorate of humane and musical letters, was given at the commencement ceremony for the UT Knoxville College of Arts and Sciences. More than 12,000 were in attendance for the event, at which Parton shared both songs and wisdom with the graduates and their families.
“Learning is all about taking chances, and rolling up your sleeves and working hard,” Parton said. “To learn more means to work more. Nobody ever makes it without hard work.”
Parton performed two songs for the graduates: campus favorite and unofficial fight song “Rocky Top”, along with a special version of her hit “Try.”
“Ms. Parton is uniquely distinguished and qualified to receive the highest honor we as a university can offer to a member of the public,” said UT Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek. “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, it is fitting that she be honored with an honorary degree from the flagship educational institution of her home state.”
Parton was introduced by Gov. Phil Bredesen, who also emphasized the importance of hard work in all of Parton’s success.
“It’s true that Dolly is blessed with natural talent and the great ability to tell stories through song,” Bredesen said. “But there is another part of the equation of her success: smarts, perseverance and a serious commitment to putting in the hours.”
Parton’s philanthropic work has centered on the importance of reading and education in the lives of children. In 1996, she founded the Imagination Library program in Sevier County, which provides children with a new age-appropriate book every month from birth to 5 years of age.
In 2004, Gov. Bredesen established the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation to replicate the Imagination Library program across Tennessee. Today, Parton’s program serves 1,000 communities in 47 states, the United Kingdom and Canada, including all 95 counties in Tennessee. By mid-2009, the Dollywood Foundation will have distributed more than 20 million books.
For more than 30 years, Parton also has provided incentives for graduation and college scholarships for Sevier County students, giving them opportunities beyond high school and a chance for a college education.
The only other recipient of an honorary degree from UT Knoxville was former U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., who received a doctorate of humane letters in May 2005.
Parton’s other achievements include winning the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service from the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, the Living Legend award from the Library of Congress, membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry, along with seven Grammy Awards, 10 Country Music Association Awards and two Oscar nominations.
Photos from the event, along with an archived version of the video webcast, can be found online at http://www.utk.edu/commencement.