There are few who have been presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s the country’s most prestigious civilian honor, and only a handful of individuals get selected during each presidential term. As such, it’s rare to hear of someone turning it down, which is exactly what country icon Dolly Parton did – twice!
In an interview with the TODAY Show in February 2021, Parton told host Hoda Kotb she’d been approached twice by President Donald Trump‘s administration about the honor, and both times she turned it down. “I couldn’t accept it because my husband was ill, and then they asked me again about it and I couldn’t travel because of COVID,” she said.
The singer – best known for her singles “Jolene” and “9 to 5” – has since heard from President Joe Biden. While flattered, she worries that accepting it now would cause it to become a political issue. “Now I feel like if I take it, I’ll be doing politics, so I’m not sure,” she said.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, superseding the Medal of Freedom introduced by President Harry Truman to honor civilian service during the Second World War. It’s bestowed upon those who have given “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or significant public or private endeavors.”
Parton’s philanthropic work definitely falls within the medal’s criteria. In 1988, she launched the Dollywood Foundation, which focuses on education and literacy in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up. Through the foundation, she was able to start Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which mails out one book per month to children who are enrolled, from the time they’re born until they begin kindergarten.
It’s estimated the program has donated more than 100 million children’s books over the past 26 years.
As well, Parton has donated money to a host of organizations, including the Red Cross and various HIV/AIDS charities. In 2006, she pledged $500,000 for the construction of a $90 million hospital and cancer center in Sevierville, and 10 years later donated $1,000 per month via the Dollywood Foundation to families affected by the 2016 Great Smokey Mountains wildfires.
She also donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University to fund research into the coronavirus. “I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else, and when I donated money to the COVID fund, I just wanted it to do good,” she said. “Evidently, it did.”
Despite her charitable efforts, Parton shared that she doesn’t think she deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I don’t work for those awards,” she said. “It’d be nice, but I’m not sure that I even deserve it. But it’s a nice compliment for people to think that I might deserve it.”
It appears the majority disagree with the singer’s sentiments, including President Barack Obama, who, in 2019, told Stephen Colbert he was shocked Parton had not received the medal.
“That’s a mistake. I’m shocked,” he said about not presenting her with the honor himself. “That was a screw-up, I’m surprised. I think I assumed that she had already got one and that was incorrect. I’m surprised, she deserves one.”
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We have a feeling future presidents will continue to offer Parton the Presidential Medal of Freedom, whether or not she feels she deserves it (she definitely does).