SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — The senior citizens visiting the Sevier County Senior Center on Monday morning got a surprise visitor.
Sevier County native and country music icon Dolly Parton paid a visit to the center, located about a half-hour west of Knoxville, for a dedication ceremony to rename the facility the My People Senior Activity Center in honor of her parents, Robert and Avie Lee Parton.
"I've been so excited, and we've been trying to keep it under wraps 'cause we have 3,000 members here, and we knew if the word got out too much, we'd have three or four or five thousand people here," said Jane Howes, executive director of the My People Senior Activity Center. "We knew we couldn't fit everyone. So I'm apologizing to everyone that we could not tell about this, and a normal Monday anyways is pretty busy, so we had a lot of people in here anyway, and word got out a little bit."
During her time at the center, Parton addressed its visitors on a stage in the cafeteria, where more than 100 people crowded in for the ceremony.
Parton, who's 72, joked with the attendees at first, saying she was a senior too.
"I am so excited to be part of this today. Of course, you know I'm a senior too. When I was over in Sevier County High School, I couldn't wait to be a senior, and now that I'm in my second childhood, I'm a senior again," Parton said. "Anyways, I saw one of my old boyfriends from high school. He said, 'Dolly, you look like a million dollars.' I said, 'Well, thank you. That's just about how much it's cost to make me look like this.' "
Parton said she thinks of the seniors in Sevier County as her people, just like her family, the employees at Dollywood and those she helped after the Gatlinburg wildfires in 2016.
"Anyway, I'm so honored and so proud to be here, and I want to thank everybody that's had a part in this, and for years, I talked about my brothers and my sisters, my mom and dad and my aunts, uncles, cousins, and I call them my people," Parton said.
"Now of course, when I started the Dollywood and the employees there, I thought of them as my family, and they became my people, and of course when we ... actually got involved in the fires up here in the heart of the Smokies. We call that My People, so I was just thinking, you know, I'm looking out at you, and I think you are, all of you, you're my people, and this is great, and I'm so proud and so honored that I'm a Smoky Mountain girl, and I'm so proud of my home, and I'm so proud of my family."
Parton also shared her key to staying young with the attendees and performed a song for them.
"I just keep myself busy, and I think that's the key to staying young, and I'm proud to be a senior citizen. Of course, we all wish we could stay 30 forever, but we can't, so I think it's important that we stay active," Parton said. "We stay with a good attitude and get out and stay involved, make friends and be whatever, and I think being a part of this whole thing is really great, and it is my pleasure to dedicate this to my people."
Why change the name?
The center was formerly called the Fort Sanders Sevier Senior Center because the Fort Sanders Sevier Medical Center, now called LeConte Medical Center, made a large donation to the facility, according to Howes.
"This has a been a project about 29 months in the works. We knew that our 15th year anniversary was coming up and that we would need to make a name change. Fort Sanders Sevier donated a large amount of money when the building was being constructed, and it's been a great relationship," Howes said. "A lot of people confuse us with being an assisted living or nursing home, so we kind of thought maybe we needed a change away from a medical name, so we thought, 'I wonder if Dolly Parton would do it?'"
Howes said Parton got involved, and the center's new name describes it more accurately.
"It just kind of fits more about what we are, and staying active and staying young, living independently and coming out and meeting friends, and you know, just being independent, so that's kind of how it came about," Howes said.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters attended the event and announced plans to expand the center.
"It's bursting at the seams right now, and it's going to have more people participate because Dolly Parton, they know that she only participates in great things, and so we're going to expand this center," Waters said.
Parton tours the facility
Before the ceremony, Parton toured the center's different areas to see what activities it offers.
She visited the woodworking shop and shouted "girl power" when she found out the women outnumbered the men in that activity.
"I love her ... everybody says she's such a real person. She's just easy. She's approachable. I get the feeling that she means everything that she says from the heart, and she's adorable, so it was great to see her. I had not seen her before," said Christine Flammang, a Sevierville resident who takes part in woodworking four days a week.
Parton briefly took part in an exercise class with around 40 participants, stepping up on the teacher's platform and lifting some dumbbells.
She also went to the center's quilting, wood-carving and wood-burning classes and interacted with the seniors in those areas.