Kansas Profile – Now That’s Rural: Senator Bob Dole
Dec. 15, 2021
By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
The businesses downtown are active. The brick streets are quiet. Two schoolboys are walking home with their bookbags. To the south, pickup trucks and livestock trailers are clustered around the sale barn. Downtown, a large 4-H clover is painted on the intersection of Main Street and Wisconsin Street.
This is Russell, Kansas: Quintessential small town America. The flags in this community are flying half-staff today, because the citizens of this rural community are mourning their favorite son who served his country his entire life.
Robert J. Dole was born in Russell in 1923. His parents had modest means, operating an egg and cream business. Young Bob was a bright and athletic kid who went to the University of Kansas to play basketball. His studies were interrupted when World War II hit and he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
In 1945, as a second lieutenant, Bob Dole was leading his troops into battle in the mountains of Italy when he was struck by an enemy shell. When his fellow soldiers saw the extent of his injuries, they gave him a shot of morphine and used his own blood to write the letter M on his forehead so a medic would know that he had already been administered the drug and would not give him another shot which would prove fatal.
In the military hospital, his fever soared to nearly 109 degrees. It looked like he would not survive, but his life was saved by a new medicine, streptomycin, which was an experimental drug at the time. He pulled through but was despondent about losing the use of his right hand and arm.
Bob Dole was sent to a specialist in Chicago. This was a turning point. Dole later wrote, “(The specialist) inspired me to focus on what I had left and what I could do with it, rather than complaining about what I had lost.” That doctor would perform seven surgeries on Bob Dole. In Russell, his friends and neighbors gathered money in a cigar box to help with expenses.
Dole went on to earn a law degree from Washburn University and came back to Russell to serve as county attorney. Here he encountered Huck Boyd, a small town weekly newspaper editor and Republican National Committee member from Kansas.
According to legend, Huck was returning home to Phillipsburg after a function late one night and was driving through Russell when he spotted one light on in the county courthouse. Curious about who was working at that hour, Huck went in and found young county attorney Bob Dole.
Huck was impressed by the hard-working young war hero and encouraged him to run for office, which he did. Huck went on to manage the successful Dole campaigns that followed. He saw his protégé rise to become Senate Majority Leader and to win the Republican nomination for president.
Huck Boyd and Senator Dole maintained a lifelong bond. When Senator Dole was asked to speak at Huck’s funeral, he was so emotionally moved that he couldn’t steel himself to do so.
Senator Dole always maintained a bond with the people of Kansas. Tad Felts is a long-time radio broadcaster who also led the annual Phillipsburg High School senior tour to Washington DC. In his forthcoming book, Tad wrote of a time before cell phones when Senator Dole invited the 60 visiting students to come into his office and call home to their parents and grandparents. “It was a madhouse,” Tad wrote.
The Senator would walk through, ask who the students were talking to, pick up the phone and say hello to the folks back home. “I’m sure he earned a lot of votes that day,” Tad wrote. Tad was highly complimentary of Senator Dole’s accessibility to the students from Kansas.
Ninety-eight years have passed since Bob Dole’s birth in this rural community of Russell, population 4,401 people. Now, that’s rural.
The brick streets of Russell are quiet today. Folks in Bob Dole’s hometown are fondly remembering their native son who succeeded on a national stage, yet never forgot that he came from rural Kansas.
Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.