February 28, 2013

As if the United States Postal Service didn’t have enough trouble, a little-noticed news item ran this week that suggests they are about to make a powerful new enemy: East Tennessee’s favorite daughter, Miss Dolly Parton. In 1996, Parton founded the Imagination Library, which sent a free book every month to children in Sevier County, the forever-impoverished mountain community where she was born in 1946. (Huh. Never thought of Dolly as a baby boomer.) In 2000, she took the program nationwide, partnering with local libraries and community groups to spread the love of reading across the United States. It’s an uncontroversial charity, because everyone likes reading.

Everyone, that is, besides the Post Office. The local newspaper from Maryville, Tennessee, reported this week that the Post Office has begun throwing out Imagination Library books that were returned due to a bad address. Although the local Kiwanis Club was once allowed to pick these books up free of charge, Uncle Sam has changed his mind. Post Office flunky David Walton said:

They are wanting to go pick those books up without paying that return fee. We can’t afford that. They are wanting to … bypass that fee that most other mailers pay. For some time, they have been getting away with that. It’s costing us money.

For the Post Office, I predict this will prove a fatal mistake. You may not know it, but Dolly Parton knows how to scrap. Although her public image is cuddly, Dolly is tougher than a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. I’ve been thinking about her a lot this week, after hearing a rebroadcast interview with the singer on NPR Sunday night. The fourth of twelve children, Parton grew up in a one room cabin, and spent her youth in the kind of not-terribly-picturesque poverty that breaks some people and turns other into country music stars.

In the interview—which I recommend listening to if you find yourself hungry for thirty minutes of molasses-smooth Tennessee drawl—Dolly does her usual sweetheart routine. But underneath, her ambition shines through. Asked by the host why she found success that eluded the rest of her family, Parton’s voice says that she succeeded through the grace of God. But her tone knows different.

Incredibly ambitious from a young age, Parton began performing at the Grand Ole Opry in her teens, and moved to Nashville the day after her high school graduation. In such a hurry that she didn’t bother washing her clothes, her first stop was a laundromat, where she met the man she would soon marry. Fame came quickly, but not easily, and from the way she speaks, I get the impression that she has no time for people who aren’t willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of their goals.

I’d always liked the idea of Dolly Parton as a nice lady who rose to the top. But the idea of her as a relentlessly ambitious, bosomy Gordon Gekko, I find, is inspirational in a much realer way.

Do I really think that Dolly’s about to take down the United States Post Office? No. But if she wanted to, I’ve no doubt she could. Ain’t nobody bigger than Dolly.

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