Dolly Parton Says Her Father Was Ashamed of Being Illiterate, but She Thought the World of Him

Dolly Parton describes her father, Robert Lee Parton, as hardworking and “so precious.” He died in 2000 at the age of 79. Here’s the story of Robert Lee Parton and how he inspired his daughter’s life and career.

Dolly Parton says her daddy was a smart, hard-working man

Parton was one of 12 children growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee with her father, Robert Lee, and her mother, Avie Lee Owens Parton.

“Daddy raised that whole family on his brains and hard work,” Parton wrote in her 2020 book, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. “He was such a smart person. I always thought that if Daddy had an education, there’s no telling what he could have been. Because he knew how to barter, he knew how to bargain. He knew how to make everything work, and he knew how to count money. He knew exactly what everything was worth, how much he was going to make from that tobacco crop, what he could trade, and how he could make it all work.”

Parton wrote that her father provided for their family “by the bend of his back and the sweat of his brow.” 

Why Robert Lee Parton never learned to read and write

The “9 to 5” singer says her father was “always kind of ashamed” of the fact that he never learned to read and write.

“But it’s not a thing to be ashamed of, because in my daddy’s case, he grew up in a family of fifteen kids, back in the mountains,” she wrote. “You had a one-room schoolhouse, and it was sometimes a mile away. Kids had to go to work in the fields to help feed the family. Because of the weather and because of conditions, a lot of kids couldn’t go to school.” 

How Dolly Parton’s father influenced her

Not only did Parton’s father inspire a number of her songs (like “Daddy’s Working Boots” and “The Dinner Bucket”), but he also inspired her to start the Imagination Library, a nonprofit organization that provides free books to children.

“I got him involved helping me with [the Imagination Library], and he felt so great about that,” she wrote. “I told him, ‘Daddy, there are probably millions of people in this world who don’t know how to read and write, who didn’t get the opportunity. Don’t be ashamed of that. Let’s do something special.’”

Parton believes telling her father’s story has helped other people to not feel ashamed about their situations.

“You don’t really realize how many people can’t read and write,” she wrote. “Me telling the story about my daddy instilled some pride in people who felt like they had to keep it hidden like a secret. I get so many letters from people saying, ‘I would never had admitted it’ or ‘I was always ashamed.’”

Parton says her father took pride in being a part of the Imagination Library, and he loved when children would refer to her as “The Book Lady.”

“I think deep down inside, my daddy was prouder of that than he even was of my career,” she wrote.

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