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An Honorary Bearcat? Dolly Parton’s Fascinating History at Willamette

Ernie Samora

Contributing Writer

Picture from Steve Thorsett's Twitter Page

While strolling through campus, many visitors are unlikely to make any connection between Willamette and singer, songwriter and country music legend Dolly Parton. You may be shocked to learn, however, that the Country Music Hall of Famer has a rather extensive history with Willamette and has left a huge impact on the campus.

On April 13th, 1985, while in Oregon for her Real Love tour with Kenny Rogers, Parton made her first visit to campus. She came as a favor to friend and business associate: Willamette alum and former football player Heine Fountain (‘77). While on campus, Parton took a tour of the weight room before making her way to McCulloch Stadium to watch the track meet. During her sold-out concert at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland later that night, Parton dedicated a song to Willamette because everyone she met here was so nice and friendly, reported one then-student’s mother.

The beautiful campus seemingly charmed Parton, as she returned to McCulloch Stadium in September 1989 to attend the annual Alumni Football game. Ross Stout, former director of campus safety who was part of Parton’s security team at the time, recalls her visit. Stout met Parton only briefly but described her as “fun, happy, and vivacious. Just very pleasant to be around.” While the campus has hosted a number of celebrities throughout the years, from Bill Nye to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Parton was one of the first celebrities to visit Willamette. “It was kind of a big deal to have a beloved celebrity on campus,” said Stout.

While at the game, Parton presented some awards to the players and helped lead the cheers. Most importantly, she announced a benefit concert produced by Fountain, the proceeds of which would be donated to the Willamette athletics department in order to improve the Sparks facility, originally constructed in 1974. These renovations were desperately needed. Stout noted that “the fitness center was in sad shape before.”

A year later, on August 23rd, 1990, Parton would return to Salem yet again for the benefit concert, held at the Oregon State Fair. Parton, so impressed with our beautiful campus and all the kind Bearcats she met, had nothing but good things to say about our university. “The audience appreciated what Dolly had to say about Willamette,” said Bill Trenbeath, who was the Athletics Director at the time of Parton’s visit. One month later, in September 1990, Fountain presented a check for $40,000 to Jerry Hudson, the University President at the time. Parton was not present during the presentation of the check.

Thus, with Parton’s generous donation, construction was able to begin on a new and improved Sparks Fitness Center. Construction of the new Sparks was completed in the fall of 1995, with the money from Parton being used to expand the weight rooms and purchase new state of the art equipment. In order to honor Parton, a plaque of the singer was displayed in the weight room thanking her for her contributions to campus. This fitness center stood tall until 2014, when it underwent renovations yet again, transforming into the lovely fitness center we have today.

As you may have noticed, there is no Dolly Parton plaque in the current Sparks facilities. In my attempts to lay my eyes upon this fascinating piece of Willamette’s history, I was met with uncertainty at every turn. “No one recalls where it went,” said Stout. Rob Passage, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, stated via email that he is “unsure where it ended up after our facility renovation in 2014.” It does not appear to be in the archives either. “Unfortunately, we do not have any record of obtaining the plaque from the athletic center,” said Abigail Chavez, Processing Archivist for the university archives, via email. Stout speculated that one possibility is that the plaque was misplaced and is somewhere within Sparks. “Passage is going to continue to look for it,” said Stout.

Although the whereabouts of the Parton plaque are unknown, one can still hold hope that one day soon it can be salvaged and displayed in all its former glory in order to remind current and future students of the selfless singer and honorary Bearcat’s massive contributions and remarkable history with this lovely university.

“My dream was to make as many people happy as I could in this life,” Parton told Leadership Tennessee in 2018. She certainly brought massive amounts of joy to Willamette. While the equipment she helped provide has come and gone, we can still smile at the wholesome connection we have to a country superstar. The only thing Parton could do to make this binturong any happier would be to pay one last visit to campus, perhaps to make a speech at the 2024 graduation ceremony. A man can dream.

Once a Bearcat, always a Bearcat, Mrs. Parton!

Graphic by Macy Loy

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