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Dolly Parton Turned Down the Presidential Medal of Freedom – Twice!

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: Ian Gavan / Getty Images

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!

Dolly Parton smiling

Dolly Parton, 1978. (Photo Credit: Richard E. Aaron / Redferns / Getty Images)

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.

Dolly Parton standing behind a microphone with a guitar

Parton, 1976. (Photo Credit: David Redfern / Redferns / Getty Images)

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.”

Past recipients include Stevie Wonder, Ellen Degeneres, Bruce Springsteen, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Dolly Parton sitting on the front porch of a house

Parton, 1980. (Photo Credit: Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

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.”

Dolly Parton standing on stage

Concert to raise money for Dolly’s Imagination Library and the Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation, 2014. (Photo Credit: Rick Diamond / Getty Images)

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.”

Dolly Parton performing on stage with a guitar

Parton performing at the launch of her Imagination Library in the United Kingdom, 2007. (Photo Credit: Yui Mok – PA Images / Getty Images)

More from us: Dolly is the Queen of Country but here are 11 Facts Proving that Tina Turner is the Queen of Rock and Roll

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).