By Brandei Clifton
October 4, 2023
In a topsy-turvy world where it can be hard to find common ground, there’s one thing folks can surely agree on: Terry Sanders is quite the character.
More like seven, actually. That’s how many quick changes he makes each shift at Silver Dollar City — his “second home” for 44 seasons. Park visitors can catch peeks of his hit characters, including Alexander the Time Traveler, Mr. M. Balmer – The City’s undertaker, and Doc Harris, the “inventor” of the Wildfire roller coaster.
On this day though, we sat down with a dressed-down Terry. No characters. Just jeans, a t-shirt, and some straight talk about life’s twists and turns that have taken him on a rich journey that began with no riches at all.
“We were pretty poor growing up. Didn’t have a whole lot,” he recalls. “But, I knew at five years old I was going to make it in entertainment somehow, some way.”
That’s how old Terry was in 1964 when he visited Silver Dollar City for the first time.
“I walked in and saw the people, the train, and all the amazing things,” he remembers with a huge, boyish grin. “I told my Grandpa Lee Sanders this is where I want to be!”
Later that night, his family went to see the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama, and he got a kick out of the character Ollie Stewart.
“I told Grandpa I was going to be that too,” Terry says. “At five years old, I had my entire life mapped out. Now how would I get there?”
That roadmap took him to college first where he studied theater at Southwest Missouri State University.
He had just turned 20 when the Herschend family hired him to play his first character, Junior Dugan, at Silver Dollar City’s Rube Dugan’s Diving Bell attraction.
“That’s really where this dream job of mine all started,” he says. “From there, more opportunities started opening up. Every single thing I’ve done here has led to something else. That’s how 44 years fly by!”
Now in his mid-60s, Terry says walking into the park for work each day takes him back to being that little boy with big dreams.
“The wonder and awe of this place makes me feel forever five years old,” he smiles. “I give myself a daily pep talk about how grateful I am that I get to work here.”
Terry’s intentional ways of connecting with guests are apparent if you’re lucky enough to tag along for a while. He remembers names, knows faces, and stops to make visitors feel special.
“Hate has boiled over in this world. We just need to bring back the love – bring back connection,” he says. “I want Silver Dollar City to be the place where folks feel that. We never truly know what guests are dealing with when they arrive. Maybe a difficult diagnosis or a loss. We can be a beautiful distraction by helping them have the best day ever.”
Terry, unfortunately, has had his own share of tragedy.
He lost his mother-in-law just a few weeks ago and his oldest son Austin died in a car accident three years ago. After each of those losses, Terry found comfort and peace at The City.
“I had to just keep moving,” he says with a pause. “This place is like added therapy for me. Guests don’t need to know what I’m going through; they deserve to be loved on and have a wonderful day!”
Terry says he and his wife Dede grieved Austin deeply but now celebrate him daily.
“He’s always with me, right here at the park,” Terry says as he puts his hand over his heart. “He encourages me and gives me signs that he’s okay. This place was special to him, too, so I can feel our bond when I’m here.”
Terry’s connection to his son inspires him to connect with guests at the park and friends in his life. He’s big on handwritten treasures for folks to keep. Whether it’s a business card from his Undertaker character or one of the hundreds of Christmas cards he sends, he believes in the power of simple signs of love.
“Really listening to people and loving them matters to them,” Terry says. “I’ve now entertained multiple generations of people, and I love hearing from them how they still have a note or card from me from years ago hanging on their fridge. Making meaningful connections is simple to do and it pays dividends.”
Terry has been on the receiving end of handwritten treasures that left their mark. When his mother was terminally ill, he wrote to Dolly Parton to thank her for the joy her music brought his family. Dolly sent a signed photo to his mom that said, “I’ll always love you.”
“That picture gave mom such strength when she was at the end of her fight. I’ll always be so incredibly grateful for that.”
Terry turned his next heap of handwritten gems into a book called “Letters from Jack” — a compilation of notes to Terry from Silver Dollar City co-founder Jack Herschend.
“They are just so precious and so dear,” he says. “I wanted Jack to know how much of an impact those letters have had on my heart and on my life. In this life, you must take time to tell others what they mean to you.”
Terry’s love for the Herschend family is behind a pretty big promise he made to them four years ago.
“It was my 40th work anniversary and I told them I’d give them 40 more years,” he laughs. “That’ll put me right at 100 years old! I’m gonna need to keep using lots of lotion and exfoliate my face.”
While the promise was light-hearted, Terry says there’s truth to the heart of it as long as his health holds up. So, what is his vision for working at 100?
“I just can’t wait to pass through the park, look around and say ’Just look at what we created here. Look at the love that grew. This was never a J-O-B for us. It was our life. Man, we made every day count!’”