The day finally arrived — the day Dolly Parton came to celebrate the success of our statewide Imagination Library!
For me, it all started several years ago. I was with three of my grandchildren when their mail arrived one day. In it were three books, wrapped in plastic, individually addressed to Jean, Steven and Grady. They ripped open the plastic with great joy and enthusiasm, saying, “Read to me. Read to me, Grandma!” I have never forgotten that joy — that thrill in their voices as they received those books!
I later met Dolly Parton at a concert in Cleveland in 2016 and told her how my own grandkids loved her books. During the concert she took some time to tell all about the Imagination Library and how she and her daddy started it.
In 2018, when Mike was running for governor and I was making stops in all 88 counties, my friend Barbara suggested we stop at our own county library. The Greene County Library was an affiliate of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and Karl Colon told me all about how the library partnered with the local Rotary Clubs, United Way and private donors to bring this program to the county. I just knew then that if Mike was elected governor, that this was something I wanted to do — make this available to every child in Ohio, no matter where they lived!
Everyone that came to the Governor’s Residence that first year had to listen to me talk about the Imagination Library. Most of our legislators came for breakfast, a dozen at a time, and I talked about it. If I met someone who might be a donor, I talked about it. If I met an educator, I talked about it. I visited libraries and preschools across the state to read to children and welcome them to the statewide program. My team worked really hard and by the end of 2019, we had an affiliate in every county! We were open statewide!
During the pandemic, even though I couldn’t go out and read to kids, I had the satisfaction just knowing that even though the public libraries and preschools might be closed, at least these children were getting their books in the mail each month. During this time, we grew from 13 percent of kids getting the books to more than 48 percent! More than 345,000 books are now being mailed each month — that’s 4 million books each year. That is more than any other state!
The fun thing is that once your state is totally open, so that any child under 5 can sign up for the free books, Dolly Parton will come to your state. On Tuesday, Aug. 9, Dolly came to Ohio! Mike proclaimed it Dolly Parton Day! I had the honor to host a lovely luncheon to thank Dolly and all of our donors and affiliates for all their contributions and hard work.
Dolly was beautiful, loving and inspirational. She was witty — and had us laughing the whole time! She was so genuine and her stories moved us. Dolly talked about her father being her inspiration for first starting the Imagination Library in her hometown. She told the story of her mother making her a patchwork coat from rags — comparing it to Joseph in the Bible and his coat of many colors.
We presented her with a beautiful quilt with squares decorated by children in each county. At the end of the program, playing a colorful rhinestone patchworked quilt guitar, Dolly sang “Coat of Many Colors” and “Try.”
There is no one like Dolly Parton. Thank you, thank you, Dolly!
Ohio First Lady Fran DeWine is a Cedarville resident, Yellow Springs native and guest columnist.