It is hard to imagine Norman Borlaug ever joining in singing “Jolene” or “9 to 5.” I can’t picture him harmonizing in a heart-tugging rendition of “I Will Always Love You.”
This is not a knock against this kid from Cresco.
He excelled in other ways — like saving upward of one billion people from starvation through the revolutionary plant-breeding work he did in the decades after World War II. Borlaug developed new, high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat, maize and rice that are still feeding people around the globe today.
He also established the World Food Prize 35 years ago to honor people who devote themselves to trying to rid the world of the scourge of hunger.
A bronze statue of the late scientist stands in Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol. It shows him in his work attire — khaki pants and shirt, rumpled hat to shield him from the sun, and a clipboard for jotting notes during inspection of fields.
When the statue was unveiled in 2014 on Borlaug’s 100th birthday, the nation’s assembled leaders joined in a remarkable tribute to this modest man. They sang the “Iowa Corn Song,” a tune he and his classmates enjoyed during the 1920s in their one-room country school in Howard County.
I am confident it was a tribute Dolly Parton would heartily approve of. While she might not have an obvious connection with the farm boy from Iowa, the two super stars do have similar traits that are worthy of our appreciation, admiration and recognition.
Even before he was chosen for Statuary Hall, Borlaug was honored by the United States in a couple of other important ways. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 from Gerald Ford and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2006 by order of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Those awards were presented in appreciation for his distinguished and meritorious achievements and contributions to the people of the United States and the world.
Back to Dolly Parton:
There was another reminder in the news last week that her talent as a singer and songwriter — as well as her fondness for sequins and big hair — often overshadows the amazing humanitarian side of her.
This girl grew up in poverty in a tiny cabin in the hill country of eastern Tennessee, and she has been on a lifelong quest to raise up those who need a boost along life’s journey.
In that regard, Norm and Dolly are two peas in a pod.
Parton appeared on Andy Cohen’s interview program on the Bravo cable television network last week. Before the conversation turned to one of her most famous songs, “I Will Always Love You,” she estimated she has 365 hairpieces she can choose from.
Cohen asked what her favorite purchase was with some of the estimated $10 million in royalties she has received from Whitney Houston’s recording of the song for the 1992 movie, “The Bodyguard.”
Without hesitating, she said it was a strip mall she bought in a Black neighborhood in Nashville. Parton’s purchase ignited redevelopment efforts that have turned the rundown area into one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods.
Nashville historian David Ewing told the Washington Post, “Dolly Parton could have built and bought any piece of property in Nashville. But you would have to have gone out of your way to buy in the 12 South neighborhood, because no Realtor would have shown Dolly that lot to buy.”
Throughout her career, Parton has confounded people who tried to stamp her as a blonde bimbo. She has listened to her own heart with her philanthropic investments, too.
Last year, she gave $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville to help pay for its work to develop a Covid vaccine. Those of you who have received Moderna vaccinations this year have been benefactors of Vanderbilt’s work and Parton’s gift.
She paid for the construction of a hospital in Sevier County, Tenn., where she grew up. She gives college scholarships to every high school graduate there.
She established a “buddy” program that pairs seventh- and eighth-graders to study together and encourage each other to stick with school. Each one receives $500 when they graduate.
That program alone has cut the high school drop-out rate in Sevier County from 35% to 6%. That’s amazing progress, although the drop-out rate is still twice as large as Iowa’s.
Parton’s father never learned to read and write, and that has always gnawed at her. In 1995, she began donating one book a month to youngsters in Sevier County from their birth until their first year in school.
She has taken that program around the United States, into Canada and overseas. To date, she has given away more than 160 million books.
“When I was growing up in the hills of East Tennessee, I knew my dreams would come true,” she said. “I know there are children with their own dreams. The seeds of these dreams are often found in books.”
It is difficult to get Americans to agree on much these days. Surely, we can all acknowledge that the irrepressible Dolly would be a worthy recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom or maybe a Congressional Gold Medal.
Even if she’s never publicly performed the “Iowa Corn Song.”