Dolly Parton Said Her Dad, Lee Parton, Had an Enduring Influence on Her Life

Parton opened up about her dad, Lee.

Dolly Parton
(Image credit: Steve Granitz)

Dolly Parton, Marie Claire's digital cover star, is almost as renowned for her charity work as she is for her music. Speaking to RuPaul, she revealed her father, Lee Parton, inspired one of her most well-known charity efforts: the Imagination Library, which gifts free books to children around the world in order to boost childhood literacy.

"[The Imagination Library] is one of the things I am proudest of, of all the things that I’ve done since I’ve been in the business," Parton told RuPaul. "And I’m sure you’ve heard the story that it came from a sincere place in my life and in my heart, because my dad—and a lot of my relatives, and a lot of people in that part of the country [where I’m from], but especially my dad—couldn’t read and write."

"And he was kind of embarrassed by that, and he thought it was too hard of a thing to learn to do after he was grown," she continued. "And I just remember feeling bad for my dad because he was so smart. And I thought, Lord, if he’d had an education, no telling what all he could have been."

"But I remember, out of my heart, just thinking, I’m going to do something. I’m going to start a program. I’m going to get my dad to help me with it," Parton recalled. "So we just started the little program in our home county there, in Sevier County in East Tennessee And so I said, 'Dad, I’m going to start this program. I want you to help me with this. It’s where we give books to children. From the time they’re born, they get a book once a month in the mail with their little name on it, until they start school.'"

"And so we started the little program, and it really did well," she said. "And I’d hoped that it would there, in the county, maybe just a few counties over. But then the governor at the time was a man named Phil Bredesen, wonderful man, and he got wind of the program, and he said, 'Well, this is a great program. Let’s take this all over Tennessee.' So we did. And the next thing you know, we went into Canada, and now we’re all over the world, different parts. And so we’ve given away like 150 million books. And my dad got to live long enough to see it doing well."

"I’m just really proud that we’re able to get books in the hands of that many children. Hopefully that’ll just go on forever," Parton reflected. "And I’ll always think of my dad, and I always feel proud that I got to share that with him."

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Dolly Parton

(Image credit: Marie Claire)
Emily Dixon
Morning Editor

Emily Dixon is a British journalist who’s contributed to CNN, Teen Vogue, Time, Glamour, The Guardian, Wonderland, The Big Roundtable, Bust, and more, on everything from mental health to fashion to political activism to feminist zine collectives. She’s also a committed Beyoncé, Kacey Musgraves, and Tracee Ellis Ross fan, an enthusiastic but terrible ballet dancer, and a proud Geordie lass.