NASHVILLE — A Tennessee legislator says he's both stunned and delighted by the response he's getting in Tennessee, the U.S. and from all over the world on his effort to commission and place a statue of country music legend, actress, businesswoman and humanitarian Dolly Parton on the state Capitol's grounds.
"It shocked me the amount of the response we've had," Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, said Tuesday after his bill to provide for a privately funded statue of the 75-year-old Sevier County native cleared the House Naming & Designating Committee that he chairs on a voice vote.
Tennesseans "love Dolly Parton, not just because she's a great musician," Windle added. "She's a caring, compassionate and just a decent person. She takes care of her community, she takes care of her state. And she does it selflessly."
The Senate version has not yet been filed, but Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, said in an interview he will "absolutely" introduce the upper chamber's version prior to the Senate's bill filing deadline this week.
Windle points to Parton's work in areas such as her Imagination Library, a book gifting program that has mailed millions of free, high-quality books to children from birth until they begin school. The program includes not just Tennessee but the rest of the U.S. as well as several other countries.
He also cites her longstanding effort to pay college costs for residents of Sevier County and the $1 million contribution she made to Vanderbilt University last year. That contribution helped set the stage for development of the successful Moderna COVID-19 vaccine by allowing Vanderbilt researchers to develop a high-quality test for use in vaccine trials.
"We can be talking about other important issues like education or corrections or other things that Tennessee needs to do," said Windle, an attorney who has represented his Upper Cumberland Plateau district for three decades. "But I think it's important at this point in history to point out people who are just decent."
Decency "is important now, and I think we should emphasize that, because we just went through a rough-and-tumble election," Windle added. "I mean, Americans are, it's just a contentious time politically, I think. And she's a person who doesn't participate — she stays away from politics. She specifically doesn't get involved in it because it can be divisive."
House Bill 135 to commission and place a statue of Dolly PartonView
Calling Parton a "decent, caring person," Windle said, "If we don't get back to that, then not just Tennessee will be in trouble, it'll be America and the world because America has been the beacon for the rest of the world."
Windle's measure, House Bill 135, provides for the Parton statue to use private dollars from gifts, grants and other donations instead of public financing. The State Capitol Commission, which has oversight over monuments, statues and busts, will be required to develop and implement a plan for the commissioning of a statue on the south lawn of the Capitol facing the Ryman Auditorium.
Parton has performed at the auditorium, formerly the home of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, numerous times over her decadeslong career.
"This will be paid for with private funds," Windle emphasized to Naming & Designating Committee members, noting he's never met Parton and is "just a fan" and that she had not been in contact with him about it. But he said he believes her achievements and charitable efforts deserve to be honored by the state.
"And I'm certain that the people of Tennessee think it's appropriate," he said.
Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, said, "I have to agree with you. She is quite the lady. I have had the honor of meeting her twice, and she is electrifying when she comes into a room. And what she does for the state of Tennessee and our children, I do think it's a great privilege for us to do that. And it's good that it's not taxpayers' money and it's private funds."
Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, said he met Parton several times when he was 12 or 13 at WSM radio in Nashville.
"She was sweet then, and she's sweet now," he said.
But noting that Parton is still alive, Rudd said statues and busts are normally placed inside the Capitol or on its grounds for "dead historical figures." He asked whether state guidelines prohibit honoring someone who is still alive.
Windle said that while he knows of no living person being honored with a statue, there is no prohibition against it. Rudd said he should double-check.
The state Capitol has been the site of numerous protests over the decades regarding a controversial bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early Ku Klux Klan leader. Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, hopes to get it removed.
During civil unrest last year over police shootings of unarmed Black men in other states, demonstrators in Nashville last summer toppled a statue of Edward Carmack, a former state lawmaker and newspaper publisher who had racist views, which stood before the Capitol.
With regard to Parton, former President Donald Trump's administration twice tried to give her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But, Parton told NBC's Today, she "couldn't accept it because my husband was ill and then they asked me again about it and I wouldn't travel because of the COVID." Parton said she has since heard from President Joe Biden about the award and noted "now I feel like if I take it, I'll be doing politics, so I'm not sure.
"But I don't work for those awards," she continued. "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."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.