One-on-one with Dolly: Music legend visits Kansas to celebrate Imagination Library’s statewide expansion

Updated: Aug. 14, 2023 at 7:01 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Music legend Dolly Parton visited the Sunflower State to share a love of reading.

An invitation only crowd of about 450 people were treated to stories and a music during Parton’s hour-long appearance at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park. The event celebrates statewide expansion of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

The program, which provides a free book every month for children from birth through age five, was started in honor of Parton’s father. She called him the smartest person she knows, even though he couldn’t read or write.

“He was always troubled by that, and I was troubled that my daddy was troubled,” she told the audience during a conversation with Gov. Laura Kelly.

Before Dolly took the stage, she chatted one-on-one with 13′s Melissa Brunner. 13 NEWS was asked not to record the interview, but Parton expanded on why the Imagination Library program is so powerful.

“We love that we’re going statewide to have more money and bigger opportunity and get more books to more children,” Parton said. “I want to be able to further the Imagination Library as much as I can. We want to be able to have children learn to read. If you can teach a child to read in his very impressionable years, even without the money, you can still self-educate yourself.”

Parton told Melissa she will direct part of a $100 million award she was given last fall from Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos toward the Imagination Library, as well as causes around her hometown in eastern Tennessee.

“I’ve always believed charity begins at home,” she said. “I’m the kind of person, I have to feel it and see it and know where that’s where I should go with it. I love to share. I’ve been blessed and I think that if you get in a position to help, you should help so I’ll just be looking for whatever else I can do to help.”

The Imagination Library leverages their foundation’s buying power, promotion, and assistance with operation counts, alongside public and private partnerships to cover mailing and book costs. Gov. Kelly said it’s worth the investment, and noted the bipartisan cooperation in getting the money added to the budget.

“We know it works. We know it’s a productive program so we want to make sure it went statewide,” she said.

Audience members included representatives of the more than 85 local Imagination Library partners, including the United Way of the Kaw Valley, based in Topeka. CEO Jessica Lehnherr said hearing from Parton first-hand was everything she expected, and capped the overall excitement leading up to the day.

“Just since she made the announcement (she was coming to Kansas), we had over 140 children sign up in two days, so it really has increased the awareness of this program and getting children to learn and sign up for books,” Lehnherr said.

Beyond the Imagination Library and other philanthropic ventures, Parton continues tackling new professional ventures. Her first rock and roll album is due out in November.

“I love being in country and I love being in movies and I love all the things that I’ve done, but when they put me in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - I love rock music. My husband is a rock freak, and I had often thought, well, maybe someday I’d do a rock album, but I kept getting older and thought maybe I had missed that opportunity, and then they go put me in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I thought, well timing is everything,” Parton, who is 77 years old, said. “That also goes to show you you’re never too old to see dreams come true, so I’m proud to say I have that as part of my legacy.”

On stage, before Parton treated the crowd to renditions of “Coat of Many Colors” and “Try,” Gov. Kelly asked Parton if she had any other new ventures in the works.

“I wake up with new dreams every day,” Parton said.

Dreaming, Parton said, is an enjoyment open to everyone. Reading and education can be tools to move those dreams forward.

“I don’t think one should ever be surprised that a child makes it from wherever they’re from. I’m a good example of that, being from a rural area and being from a poor family,” Parton said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. If you’re smart and if you have a good heart and if you stick to your guns and do the work and keep dreaming and believing in yourself, then you’re going to do some great things in this world.”

For all the books she’s given, Parton said her favorite is the one all Imagination Library participants receive first: The Little Engine That Could.

“It gave me confidence - I think I can, I think I can,” she said. “I truly am a little engine that did!”

As Melissa’s interview with Parton wrapped up, the hit “9 to 5″ started playing on the overhead speaker. Topeka Civic Theatre happens to be doing the stage musical in September.

“That movie, that stage show, it just talks about women in the workplace and really being fair and honest with people. Equal pay for equal pay and all that, so I think that was the first movie of its kind to really draw attention to that - people were not being paid and not being respected as much as they should,” Parton said. “It’s a good show and I’d like to think my music has held up. I just say to the actors coming in, have a good time because I had a good time writing it. I had a good time starring in it when I got to do the movie. I wish I could be there with them but just hang in there and break a leg as they say!”

Kansas becomes the 15th state with a statewide imagination library program. To enroll from birth to age five, visit

Photo gallery: WIBW Phil Anderson