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Ashtons' Philanthropy, Timpanogos Storytelling Festival No Tall Tale


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Every year, in late summer, thousands of people from throughout Utah and across the nation flock to Provo Canyon to hear some of the world's premier storytellers tell tales and relate real-life experiences.

Fact and fable intermix at the annual Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, just like the nationally prominent storytellers who spin the stories and the audience members who delight in listening to them.

For instance, legendary performer Donald Davis, who was featured at the festival that wrapped up earlier this month, retells many of the stories he heard as a child growing up in North Carolina's Appalachian Mountains. Music is part of storyteller Bill Harley's muse. A Quaker and comparative-religion graduate, he used story and song at the festival to relate hilarious tales about his family and boyhood schools and adventures.

While many tales at the event are taller than the truth, and nearly all of them are embellished, few of them are more compelling than the true story of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. It originated in 1990 as a fundraiser for a new children's wing at Orem's library. Karen Ashton and other Friends of the Orem Public Library began by putting on "Anne of Green Gables," The Velveteen Rabbit" and other plays.

That changed when Ashton attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., where she and other festival-goers in tents were entranced by the dynamic storytellers plying their craft. If a Tennessee town of 3,000 people was capable of staging a festival of such magnitude, she reasoned, Utah Valley surely could do the same thing.

Before selling the idea of a Utah storytelling festival to her fellow Friends, though, she first had to explain what it was. Nearly all of them had no idea but were still willing to give it a go. If only they could get anyone to show up.

Fortunately, nearly 2,000 people did -- to Ashton's and neighbors' back yards and surrounding fields. And the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival was born and has borne fruit ever since.

Today, more than two decades later, the festival has emerged as one of the largest and most popular events of its kind in the U.S. All told, more than 26,000 people attend the three-day event, which since 2005 opens each year in Mt. Timpanogos Park in scenic Provo Canyon. Moreover, the festival and its organizers have garnered national acclaim and scores of awards.

Perhaps none more so than Karen.

In 1999, the National Storytelling Network honored her with the Leadership Award in recognition for her leadership and contributions to the community. And her husband, Alan, who co-founded WordPerfect Corp., is just as much of a visionary and philanthropist.

Together, they make quite a team. In 1995, after Alan sold WordPerfect, the Ashtons founded Thanksgiving Point in Lehi as a means of giving back to Utah. This Utah Valley attraction now lures thousands to its restaurants, shops, working farm, world's largest dinosaur museum and --Karen's pride and joy -- 55-acre botanical garden.

But the Ashtons' giving doesn't end there. They have donated generously to scores of causes -- many more than people will ever know and the Ashtons are willing to talk about.

Little wonder the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce recently presented the Ashtons with its Pillar of the Valley Award. Regrettably, my Senate duties precluded me from attending that gala at Thanksgiving Point, where hundreds of people paid glowing tribute to the Ashtons.

Fittingly, I am told, one of the speakers was storyteller Donald Davis, who, like everyone else in attendance, did not have to embellish the truth or resort to tall tales when talking about Alan and Karen. By all accounts, from me and everyone else who knows them, the Ashtons are truly extraordinary.

That's our story -- and by golly, we're sticking to it.

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