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Dolly Parton Wows Ole Miss, Oxford 

By Tina H. Hahn

University of Mississippi

Dolly Parton (second from right) is honored with the Legacy Award from the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy. Presenting her with the award are (from left) Liz Randall, outgoing OMWC chair; Mary Haskell, former chair; and Suzan Thames, incoming chair. The legendary entertainer was honored for her philanthropy, leadership and mentorship. Photo by Bill Dabney/UM Foundation

Legendary performer and philanthropist Dolly Parton captured the hearts of two University of Mississippi audiences during her recent visit to accept the Legacy Award from the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

“Storytime with Dolly” featured the special guest reading “The Little Engine That Could” by Watty Piper and talking about literacy to a packed Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Sponsored by Regions Bank, the event was part of the OMWC Rose Garden Literacy Project. 

“Regions Bank has served Oxford and communities across north Mississippi for decades, and community engagement is part of Regions’ mission to improve the quality of life in the communities we serve,” said Brett Shaffer, community relations manager for Regions Bank. “Education is a key part of our work, so we were honored to sponsor ‘Storytime with Dolly.’ 

“We salute the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy and the University of Mississippi for their work to support education and opportunities for all.”

Then, Parton was honored at the Legacy Award dinner at The Jefferson event venue, where she surprised the audience by performing two songs and playing guitar. The C Spire Foundation was the presenting sponsor. 

“The C Spire Foundation is very pleased to support the Ole Miss Women’s Council and the Legacy Award since its very beginning,” said Beth Pickering, the foundation’s executive director. “Our values align similarly in a belief in education and mentorship that will inspire and develop students’ leadership skills and future success.

“The 2020 Legacy Award has been like no other. Although it was delayed because of the pandemic, it’s just one example of the kind of work the OMWC members pull off when they set their minds to something. It was such a privilege to finally honor Dolly Parton, a living legend and such an amazing example of philanthropy for all of us.”

The Legacy Award recognizes individuals who epitomize the council’s goals of philanthropy, leadership and mentorship. Although Parton is known as a successful country music singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, record producer, actress and author, her commitment to elevating other people is a major part of her life. 

The 2020 award presentation was postponed twice because of COVID-19.

“Having Dolly here will be remembered as one of those magical Ole Miss moments, which makes the Ole Miss Women’s Council family unique and illustrates the widespread appeal of the mission to create a more caring and ethical society one scholar at a time,” said Liz Randall, the council’s chair. 

“Dolly Parton could have truly been anywhere in the world, and she choose to spend a full weekend with us. That speaks to the relationship and respect she has for Mary and Sam Haskell and her support of the Ole Miss Women’s Council.”

Parton and the Haskells are longtime friends and business associates. Mary Haskell is a member and former OMWC chair. Sam Haskell, of Magnolia Hills Productions, is the executive producer of Parton’s movies and specials and recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie for the 2021 “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square.”

Haskell and Parton met 42 years ago, and he became her agent with the William Morris Agency in 1995. After he retired from the agency business in 2005, the two segued into a production partnership with Warner Brothers Studio and have successfully executed movies together for the past decade.

One focus of the popular entertainer’s philanthropy is her Imagination Library, a program that sends free, high-quality books to children from birth to age 5, regardless of their family’s income. The organization sends books monthly to children around the world.

“I see the unparalleled and universal appeal of Dolly Parton due in large part to her consistency in being respectful and kind to all people, and her lifelong commitment to philanthropic efforts,” Randall said. “Dolly has been honest about why literacy, for example, is so meaningful to her family by citing candidly that her father could not read. 

“Her vulnerability and honestly are endearing. She took that hardship in her life and turned it into an organization, the Imagination Library, which has distributed close to 200 million books around the world – the perfect example of a philanthropist doing it for all the right reasons. She is elevating the lives of children, who are the most important part of society.”

Parton was hosted for the weekend by the Haskells, who took her to several local spots.

“Dolly loved the beauty of Oxford and the Ole Miss campus, but she especially responded to the hearts of all the people involved that she met,” Mary Haskell said. “She was overwhelmed by the generosity she experienced here during her Legacy Award weekend.”

Philanthropy was on display by the Ole Miss family throughout the OMWC Legacy Award weekend.

At “Storytime with Dolly,” the council surprised Sarah McLellan, executive director of the Lafayette County Literacy Council, with a $25,000 contribution for the Imagination Library program. Haskell shared the inspiration behind the gift.

“When the OMWC held our 20th anniversary in 2020, Dolly allowed us to auction a dinner for 10 people to dine with her at our home the evening before the Legacy Award dinner,” Haskell said. “It seemed only right that we share the proceeds of that successful fundraising opportunity she provided us, so the $25,000 donation to her Imagination Library, supporting the local chapter here in Lafayette County, was determined.

“Dolly said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen one charity donate to another charity; now that’s something.'”

Besides the OMWC gift, title sponsor C Spire Foundation announced it would make a $25,000 donation to the North Panola County Imagination Library program in honor of Parton.

“Philanthropy is contagious and works the best when it serves in all directions – this creates a compounding effect in the impact,” Randall said. 

Besides the C Spire Foundation, event sponsors for Parton’s visit included platinum sponsors Sanderson Farms, Cooper Communities Inc. and Regions Bank. Gold sponsors were FedEx Corp. and mTrade.

Silver sponsors were Bank Plus, Stephanie Barrett, Data Line Technologies, Gertrude C. Ford Foundation, The Jefferson, Diane and Dick Scruggs, UM Foundation, Jane Claire and Nason Williams, and Yates Construction. Bronze sponsors can be seen online at https://omwc.olemiss.edu/awards/legacy-award/.

Founded 22 years ago, the OMWC has secured $20 million to endow scholarships awarded to deserving students. The council’s program also provides guidance and training in leadership skills, life and career development, personal growth through cultural and travel opportunities, and alumni networking throughout the students’ tenure at the university. 

Once an OMWC Scholar, a student can receive financial resources from the council’s Global Leadership Circle to pursue study abroad or internships on the national and international levels.

For more information, contact Suzanne Helveston, OMWC director of development, at shelveston@olemiss.edu or 662-915-2956 or visit online at https://omwc.olemiss.edu.

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