12 Years Ago: Dolly Parton Gives UT Knoxville Commencement Address, Earns Honorary Doctorate
On May 8, 2009, Dolly Parton gave the University of Tennessee, Knoxville graduating class a commencement speech to remember. The country icon's address mixed self-deprecating humor, anecdotes from her own life and inspirational encouragement.
"Do not confuse dreams with wishes," she said at one point to the 12,000-strong crowd. "There is a difference. Dreams are where you visualize yourself being successful at what’s important to you to accomplish. Dreams build convictions because you work hard to pay the price to make sure that they come true. Wishes are hoping good things will happen to you, but there's no fire in your gut that causes you to put everything forth to overcome all the obstacles.
"So you have to dream more," Parton added, "and never, ever, ever blame somebody else if it doesn’t happen."
At another point, Parton recalled starting the Dollywood Foundation, and detailed how the organization's mission came together: "In the end, what we came up with was pretty simple, straightforward and a wish for all kids: We wanted them to dream more, learn more, care more, and be more," she explained. "Now, when I was thinking about what I should say to you today, those four simple things just kept coming back to me."
From there, Parton interspersed memories from her own life that embody those four points — such as the time she learned the entire script for the movie 9 to 5, and how she started her career in Nashville working with Porter Wagoner.
"We were one of the most popular duets ever in country music, but I wanted to try new things," Parton said of the latter. "I wanted to write more songs, different music, and sing and try different things. Porter didn’t want that — and neither did a whole lot of the so-called conventional wisdom. I knew that even if I fell flat on my face, at least that I would know that I tried, and that I would learn something from all that."
After giving her speech, Parton received an even bigger honor: an honorary doctorate of humane and musical letters. According to a press release, it was only the second honorary degree ever given out by the school. (The first was awarded to former U.S. Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. in 2005.) She was introduced by then-Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who had some kind words of his own to share about Parton.
“It’s true that Dolly is blessed with natural talent and the great ability to tell stories through song,” he said. “But there is another part of the equation of her success: smarts, perseverance and a serious commitment to putting in the hours.”
To cap off the special night, Parton also performed two songs: “Rocky Top” — dubbed the "unofficial fight song" of the school in a release — and “Try.”
Parton's speech made waves well beyond graduation day. The video became a viral sensation on the then-new platform YouTube. Parton also adopted her speech into a book, Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You, with proceeds benefiting her Imagination Library.
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