Remembering Bob Dole

Part III: Recovery: A rage to excel

Dole was transferred from the field hospital to a hospital near Naples, Italy, for a few weeks and then flown to Miami, where he immediately phoned his parents, getting someone to hold the receiver for him. By mid-June, the top half of his body covered with a plaster cast that reached part of the way up his head, he was in the Winter General Army Hospital in Topeka. His mother moved to Topeka and spent all her time with him, night and day.

During that time, the family got word that Dole's close friend from high school and KU, Bud Smith, had been killed in action. It wasn't a piece of news Dole could have taken, weak and discouraged as he was.

"We had to hide the newspapers so he wouldn't see that," his sister Norma Jean said.

The story of his harrowing three-year convalescence is well-known - how it took him six months to stand and nearly a year to feed himself one-handed, how he almost died when his temperature reached 108.7 degrees - so he says in his book - but the doctors packed him in ice and pulled him through the crisis. Later they removed a kidney.

It was a tough time, and it showed in Dole's attitude. "A sad little guy," his brother-in-law, Nelson, found him when he visited. "Little," because Dole's weight had dropped to 122 pounds.

From November 1945 onward, Dole spent much of his time at Percy Jones Army Medical Center in Battle Creek, Mich., surviving another crisis that started with blood clots in his lungs. That time, it was streptomycin, then an experimental drug, that pulled him out of a perilously high fever.

His father took the train from Russell to Battle Creek to spend Christmas with him - standing up most of the way, Dole says in his book, because the train was full of servicemen. Doran Dole may have been stingy with praise and ultra-particular about the way chores were done, but nobody, least of all his famous son, has said he lacked feeling for the sick or for his own children.

Gradually Bob Dole learned to walk, to dress himself and to make more and more use of his left hand and arm. As he improved, he spent long periods on leave in Russell, sleeping in what had been his parents' bedroom on the northwest corner of the house, with an entry through French doors from the front porch. That was before the Doles extensively remodeled the house, moving the entrance from the west to the north and adding a big fireplace.

Somebody gave Dole a little record player. He had Norma Jean put on a recording - probably Frank Sinatra's - of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and play it over and over:

When you walk through a storm

Keep your chin up high

And don't be afraid of the dark.

At the end of the storm is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain

Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown,

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart,

And you'll never walk alone.

The touches about the storm and the lark seemed tailored to Russell, and the message inspired a young man who badly needed inspiring. Wasted and weak, his formerly powerful right arm as thin as a Buchenwald inmate's and locked at an unnatural angle across his torso, he looked like the invalid he was. And although he could still laugh immoderately at his brother's clowning and could still enjoy playing bridge with his father and Chet and Ruth Dawson or poker with friends such as Bub Dawson (someone made him a wooden holder with slots for his cards), the image of himself in the mirror slowed the return of his old high spirits.

His experience the first time he was able to go downtown didn't help. It took several people to get him into the car, Norma Jean Steele remembers, and when they helped him get out downtown, eager to go into Dawson's for the memories in the old place, a man stopped him, looked him over and said, "It might have been better if you'd been finished off over there."

Dole replied, "If I'd have felt like that, I'd be gone by now." But the remark had hit him hard.

"He swallowed a couple of times," his sister said. "I didn't know whether we were going to get him into the store or not."

The part of the former Dole that did return to its old self, and beyond that point, was his determination to do the best he could with himself. If "I'll take them, Sergeant," was one of the most decisive utterances of his life, his mother's "Can't never could do anything" was another.

At first, Dole carried "Can" to unrealistic lengths. He was going to get his strength back, was going to regain the use of the pitiful right arm, was going to play basketball again. He went to his old teammate, Adolph Reisig, who was running an auto body shop.

"I would like to be a whole person again," he told Reisig. "I would like to do the things I want to do."

Reisig made him a cuff of lead with hinges and a lock. It fit from his wrist to his elbow and weighed about 6 pounds. Hauling that weight around, trying to lift it, must have strengthened the arm a little, because Reisig said Dole returned two or three times and had him add about a half-pound each time.

Dole also worked the arm by the hour at an exerciser attached to the outside of the family's garage and equipped with a handle and a spring. That backward pull was one movement the arm could manage. These days, according to Dole's wife, Elizabeth, he works it in somewhat the same way with a rowing machine in their apartment.

But nothing could make the arm strong and useful again. In early 1947, Dole went to Chicago to see a doctor: Hampar Kelikian, an Armenian native who specialized in repairing badly damaged limbs.

Kelikian performed seven operations on Dole's arm and shoulder, making it more natural-looking if scarcely more useful. He refused to accept a fee. Russell people contributed $1,800 to help with hospital expenses, some of them putting their coins and dollar bills into a cigar box at Dawson's. "About every store in town had a box with Bob Dole's name on it," Bub Dawson said.

Dole makes it apparent in his book that Kelikian's counsel was as valuable as his skill. He told Dole not to expect a miracle. Make up your mind to do what you can with what you have, he said, and get on with your life.

Whatever his exact words were, they may have been the third central utterance of Dole's life. They seem to have turned the great power of his determination into a realistic channel. He gave up his notions about playing basketball and football again and about having a medical career. He chose instead the law - a profession he could manage with a withered, useless right arm and the largely numb left hand that had resulted from his spinal injury.

And that profession, with the political career it flowed into, became the object of a remarkably single-minded pursuit. As hard as Bina Dole scrubbed, waxed, sewed and cooked, as demandingly as Doran Dole exacted the perfect mowing of his lawn, their son worked as hard and as demandingly - of himself and others - in his postwar roles as student, legislator, congressman, senator, party leader and presidential candidate.

To what extent did his war wounds create this drive to advance? Unwounded, would he have worked as grimly to be the greatest physician in the country?

His sister Norma Jean thinks so. "I don't think he ever settled for anything less," she said.

His hard work as a high school and college athlete lends support to her judgment. On the other hand, he hadn't worked so hard at his studies.

That changed, as he demonstrated soon after the hospital in Michigan turned him loose. He applied himself so ferociously to studies and work that his new wife tried to slow him down for his own protection. She had no luck.

In Bob Dole's psychic terrain, the rage to excel arrived like a wall of red water surging down the Smoky Hill River after an upstream cloudburst. The potential may have been there all the time, like humidity in the plains air, but it took an event to heap it up into a thunderhead and then release it with a rush that hasn't subsided in a half-century.

The new wife, who eventually became a wrung-out victim of that cloudburst, was the former Phyllis Holden of Concord, N.H., an occupational therapist at the Battle Creek hospital. She and Dole met at a dance there in the fall of 1947, while he was a patient, and were married in June 1948.

Doctors suggested that Dole would benefit from a warm, dry climate. The newlyweds, with Dole driving their Chevrolet the whole way, shifting gears with a left-hand shift lever a friend in Russell had installed, moved to Tucson, Ariz., that fall so he could enroll in the University of Arizona. His education was financed by the GI Bill of Rights.

They lived in a two-room frame guest house with a kitchenette. It was in an upper-class neighborhood a mile east of the university, close to a resort hotel (since torn down) called El Conquistador.

"It was a lovely place to have a place," said Dole's then wife, now Phyllis Macey of Topeka. She talked a few minutes on the phone for this story but would not agree to a longer interview. Norma Jean Steele, who, like others in the family, has stayed close to Macey, said her former sister-in-law was simply tired of the pressure of being interviewed.

Free of the distractions of sports, dates, frat parties and going-into-service parties and challenged by a useless right arm and a slow-moving left hand, Dole studied into the nights. At first, he says in his book, his wife went to class with him and took notes for him. Later he got one of the cumbersome tape recorders of the day and set it near the professors, laboriously transcribing their lectures at night. He did not want Phyllis or anyone else helping him more than necessary.

After a year in Tucson, they spent the summer of 1949 in Russell and then moved to Topeka, where he entered Washburn University. He signed up to work toward an undergraduate degree in history at the same time he was working toward a law degree.

The couple lived in a small apartment complex. He studied so hard that his wife tried to reason with him. He didn't have to make an A every time, she said. He replied that he didn't know how to study for less - though, as he points out, he had certainly known how at KU. The war, his maturing responsibility and the advice of a surgeon he revered had changed his ways.

Studying wasn't enough for him. At the suggestion of several people, including Beth Bowers, the law librarian at Washburn, and John Woelk, the county attorney in Russell, Dole took his first step toward a political career. Still a law student, only 27, with no political background, he became a Republican candidate for the state Legislature. His Democratic opponent was Elmo J. Mahoney, a farmer.

The hometown hero won easily in November, and the Topeka State Journal took note. "Personable young Bob Dole of Russell, disabled World War II veteran and junior law student at Washburn university, was looking forward Friday to his start in politics as a member of the Legislature," the story by Gay Kalbfleisch began. The reporter said Dole's wife, then an occupational therapist at the Topeka State Hospital, had at first been unsure whether Dole ought to run, because, she said, "he works awfully hard in law school and I wasn't sure he should try some other kind of outside activity." But she had decided it was a good idea.

When the reporter asked about his plans as a legislator, Dole replied in what he later looked upon as pretty big talk for a beginner: "I'm going to sit and watch for a couple of days and then I'll stand up for what I think is right."

He seems to have spent a busy term in the Legislature. He served on four committees and was the sole sponsor of bills concerning oil leases, judgments against debtors' property, and the exemption of armed service personnel from hunting and fishing licenses.

Having attended school the year-round, he finished in the spring of 1952, winning his law and undergraduate degrees with high honors - a grade point average between 3.6 and 3.79 on a 4.0 scale.

When he took the bar exam in the legislative chambers that spring, he and his wife sat as far from the other candidates as they could and she wrote as he whispered the answers to her.

"I was petrified," she said, "because I didn't know how to spell all that legal stuff."

He passed, and they headed for Russell. He joined Eric "Doc" Smith in law practice, setting up an office in a room over Banker's store. In June he announced his candidacy for Russell County attorney. His opponent in the Republican primary was Dean Ostrum, a Yale graduate who had been taken prisoner by the Germans during the war, later escaping. But Dole's wounds and people's memories of his high school athletic achievements were better credentials than Ostrum's, as far as the voters were concerned - and Dole says frankly in his book that it was sympathy that won for him. He won the primary with difficulty and then easily took the general election. He served as county attorney for four two-year terms, carrying on his private law practice at the same time.

Other lawyers who encountered Dole in the courthouse considered him capable, and he showed a lawyerly version of the Dole humor. While the jury was out in a damage suit against a Russell business, Dole, who was not involved in the case, stepped into the courtroom to talk with the defense attorney. He nodded toward the jury room and said loudly, joshing the defendant, "I hear they're asking to have a calculator sent in."

Typically of the postwar Dole, he worked long hours in his third-floor office at the northwest corner of the courthouse. Bub Dawson would leave the drugstore a little after 11 p.m., go home to his house across the street from the courthouse, and see lights still burning in the county attorney's office.

Dole made Dawson a will free of charge. He has on other occasions shown loyalty and gratitude to those who have befriended or helped him, as in his championing of Armenian causes in Congress - a way of paying tribute to Dr. Kelikian.

And several couples who then lived in Russell offer evidence that Dole's sometimes questioned compassion was real, at least in that time and place. As county attorney, he worked with the county health officer one December on the case of seven neglected and abused children. The children had to be taken out of their home, but Dole was determined not to let them become wards of the state and grow up in foster homes. He found local homes for all of them, phoning likely couples until enough had agreed to take one or more of the children at least until Christmas.

One of the women said she and her husband took a boy and a girl, though the girl later went back to her parents. The day the children arrived, Dole went by her house to take the girl's glasses to her, "and he talked to both the children and seemed very concerned about them - told them he knew we'd be good to them," the woman said.

A Russell lawyer who, with his wife, took two of the children said that though he and Dole have sometimes disagreed politically, "I've always thought that Bob exercised and showed great compassion and interest in people in finding homes for those seven children."

The couples did more than just take the children for the holidays - they adopted them and brought them up. All are grown now and reportedly doing well.

Along with his public and private practice, Dole kept himself frenetically busy at outside activities. The upstream cloudburst kept roaring. He taught Sunday school at the Methodist church, was Sunday school superintendent for a while, took an active part in the Kiwanis Club, Elks, Masons and Young Republicans and was chairman of the county Red Cross chapter. Such activities, he says frankly in his book, amounted to "the classic unpaid advertising of small-town lawyers everywhere."

Woelk, his predecessor as county attorney, characterizes the activity more bluntly. It was designed at least in part to help Dole's political career, he says. He considers Dole a perpetual candidate. "I look for him to run for head of the United Nations next," he said.

Even Dole's position as a non-drinker, Woelk surmised, was influenced by his interest in the temperance vote. He gave Dole credit for his backing of food stamps along with Sen. George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat - a position, he said, that "showed some compassion for the unfortunate."

But Woelk characterized Dole in general as a legislative mechanic.

"I don't view him as a thinker or an originator of ideas," he said.

When Woelk's remarks about his Russell activities were summarized for Dole, he responded:

"I worked at politics. It was hard work. If you didn't want to work at it, you shouldn't be in it."

Of Woelk he said only: "I've never had a problem with John, as far as I know, but he apparently has had a problem with me."

Another former Kansas politician, Bill Roy, a Topeka physician and former congressman whom Dole defeated in a close and bitter campaign for re-election to the Senate in 1974, assessed Dole's motivations in terms that sounded like Woelk's.

"You can't separate what he does as a person from what he does as a politician," Roy said, "because I think they're one and the same."

As busy as Dole was in his county-attorney days, he still found time for socializing of a kind with no clearly political motives. He and Phyllis - and Robin, born in October 1954 - often visited Russ and Janie Townsley, who lived catty-cornered from them. While the women did the dishes and talked in the kitchen, the men sat in the living room, read, and carried on a shorthand conversation. Dole, maybe reading U.S. News & World Report, would come across something, say, "What do you think of this?" and read it aloud.

Looking up briefly from his newspapers, Townsley would make some monosyllabic reply. That was all their etiquette required, Townsley said, since "We knew where we stood." Then both would get back to their reading.

Townsley is one of the many Russell residents who can find almost nothing unfavorable to say about Dole, and like the others, he defends the questioned Dole compassion almost as if he had a special assignment to do so. He cites, for instance, the case of the abused children. "If it had been Bob's own family," he said, "he couldn't have been more considerate and careful." And he says it wasn't as if he had had publicity in mind.

When he was county attorney, Dole spoke at Trinity Methodist Church in Russell on March 6, 1955, for the dedication of a chapel in memory of those killed in action. The talk began with some grammatical stumbling:

"Rev. Jenkin, Dr. Miller, Mr. Ostrum, friends and particularly the families, friends, and neighbors, of those who we pause here to pay tribute this afternoon."

Possibly Dole, in speaking, added the missing -m to "who" and inserted the needed "to" before it. He is notorious, these days, for almost never sticking to a prepared text. At any rate, the text of his memorial talk also included these reflections, which show his bent for history:

"There is a normal tendency not to remember many things about Wars which led through victories to fresh crises rather than a stable peace. It is possible to look back on Wars as a whole and see only tragic and desperate interludes which created almost as many difficulties as the Wars solved. But such an objective look has nothing to do with the men who served, risked and gave their lives to make history, not to interpret it."

The text is possibly the only surviving one of a Dole speech from so early in his career. Two or three Russell friends say he sometimes delivered sermons at his church, but if so, the words and even the topics have been lost. Similarly, nobody can say whether by then, in his early 30s, Dole had developed the voice quality that identifies him today, as dark as Guinness Stout and with about as much rise and fall as Mount Sunflower.

In reminiscing about the days when Dole was starting his political career in Russell, everyone mentions his off-duty associations with people and groups. No one mentions the outdoors, and Dole scarcely does so in his book, except for a few generic, Chamber of Commerce-style remarks about the majestic and empty prairie, golden wheat fields, swooping hawks, rotating windmills and bright stars. When he does get more specific, his accuracy fails - he has an oil rig humming, not putt-putting, and cottonwood leaves chiming, not rustling or whispering. (Possibly these were creative touches by the actual writer, Richard Norton Smith, but Dole presumably read and approved the book.) If he sometimes gathered up his wife and child and drove to one of the neighboring rivers at sunset for the view and maybe a stroll down a dirt road along a fence line of rock posts, the experience doesn't seem to have made enough of an impression on him to justify space in his recollections. His one distinctive observation in that connection is that the rock posts were the color of honey.

Those posts still catch the eye of the traveler on Interstate 70. Thick and jagged, leaning this way and that, glowing warmly on the side the sun hits, they change the whole character of the landscape. Though they look as if they were standing on the ground, their own great weight providing stability, they are actually sunk two or three feet into the ground. Many of them have been in use a century or more. In the nostalgic thoughts of expatriate Russell County people, they must fill the role that live oaks do for Southerners and Pikes Peak does for Colorado Springs residents.

After eight years' practice in Russell, Dole was ready to leave the post-rock country. His 1960 campaign for Congress has been widely reviewed: the gimmick of Dole pineapple juice at rallies, the pretty "Bob-O-Links" girls whose name reminded people of their candidate's identity, the participation of his 5-year-old daughter, who wore a little red skirt with a sewn-in sign, "I'm for my Daddy. Are you?" As when he first ran for county attorney, Dole won a tough Republican primary and a comparatively easy general election.

Thus began a congressional career that stretched across 36 years. The change from Russell to Washington tightened and hardened the surface of the Dole landscape even as Dole's own surroundings changed from semi-arid and semi-empty to humid, green and jammed-up with humanity. As the war had profoundly increased the determination of a formerly apathetic student, the pace and mood of Washington and Congress changed his homey small-town-lawyer ways to a brusque, all-business attitude that both intimidated and profoundly impressed his staff members. And on the floor of the House and later the Senate, he became at the very least a first-rate example of the legislative mechanic of John Woelk's characterization.

But of course he couldn't forget his Russell background. A New York Times story this year said that in those early years he and his wife and child drove back to Russell every summer.

No doubt he made the most of his time there. From the first, Dole devoted as much effort to pleasing his Kansas constituents as he had to getting A's in law school. He makes it plain that this, to him, was the way to political success. He answered letters personally, got tour passes to the Capital in Washington for visitors and even guided them, congratulated residents of his district on graduating from high school, on having a baby, on celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. For a new congressman, he says in his book, the quest for visibility is like that for the Holy Grail.