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Bob Dole: A hero in his hometown

By GARY E. DUDA

RUSSELL, Kan. -- The road to success for Robert Dole, the Kansas senator on the brink of a presidential bid, has been strewn with obstacles.

Poverty, obscurity of small-town life and a near-fatal war injury that left him permanently handicapped were his lot in the first two decades of life.

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To the people who live in his hometown of Russell, Kan., population 5,400, Bob Dole is nearly a legend -- a man who overcame life's early adversities through hard work, determination and loyal support from the hometown crowd.

'It's quite a story,' Kenny Dole says of his brother's life. 'He's quite a hero.'

Dole, the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, began his political career from the red-brick streets of Russell in 1951 when he was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives at the age of 26.

The people who put him there didn't need convincing that Dole was their man. To them, he had already proven he was a winner by surviving a World War II injury that doctors thought would kill him.

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'They (doctors) didn't have much hope for him,' says Kenny Dole. 'In fact, they didn't have any hope for him at all.'

Today, more than three decades after he entered politics, the 62-year-old Dole retains his hometown popularity.

'He's hometown blood,' says Glenda Finke, a spokeswoman for the Russell Chamber of Commerce.

And Russell residents like to remind people Dole is their native son. Entering the western Kansas town, visitors on Interstate 70 see two large billboards erected through private funds that read 'Welcome to Bob Dole Country.'

At the same time, the people of Russell don't want Dole to forget them. The ones who think he has don't hesitate to say so to anyone who will listen in the local taverns and coffee shops.

'Dole's for Dole,' says Milton Fabian, the owner of a local engine repair shop who thinks Dole has forgotten Russell in his move up the political ladder.

Richard Newton, manager of an acid-oil recovery company, says he thinks Dole and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, could do more to help Russell, a town besieged by economic problems brought on by the slumping oil and agricultural industries.

When Dole left Russell for Washington, he left a town riding high on the wave of economic prosperity. Today, Dole sits atop the political world while Russell struggles to survive.

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Between 1985 and 1986, Russell County's 5,489-member workforce was trimmed by about 1,000 jobs due to a dramatic slump in the domestic oil economy.

Although times are tough, especially for working-class residents like Newton and Fabian, most of the town still stands behind its native son.

'I'd vote for Dole,' Newton said. 'Well, why not? It would be the best thing that could happen to Russell, Kan.'

In an interview, Kenny Dole, 64, explains that Bob Dole's Russell roots run deeper than the typical hometown-native son relationship.

Kenny Dole, who bears a strong resemblence to his brother, says it was the people of Russell who once dipped deep into their pockets for money to send Bob Dole to Chicago for an operation to repair his war wounds.

The injuries occurred in 1945 when Dole, a second lieutenant with the 85th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, was hit in the right shoulder with a mortar shell while trying to help a fallen soldier.

The injury temporarily paralyzed his arms and legs and left him on the verge of death. Before the injury, the 6-foot-3 Dole weighed 192 pounds and played football and basketball at the University of Kansas. A year later, he weighed 120 pounds and could not even feed himself.

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Kenny Dole said that after the war, his brother, then 22, returned to Russell on a stretcher and soon was back in the hospital with an infection that resulted in the loss of a kidney.

After Dole won yet another battle for his life, the family learned of the Chicago doctor who performed an operation that eventually returned the use of his left arm and partially repaired his right arm. Dole still does not use his right arm much, using his left hand to shake thousands of hands on the campaign trail.

Kenny Dole thinks it was the war injury that steered Bob Dole away from a medical career and into politics. Before his injury, Dole was enrolled at the University of Kansas as a premed student. But without the full use of his arms, he turned to law and eventually to politics.

'I knew that when he started, he would go where ever he wanted,' Kenny Dole says.

Russell Townsley, the publisher of the Russell Daily News, also sees Dole's war injury as the catalyst to his political career.

'When he realized that he could not be the athlete or the whole person he was before, he started out to be the best he could be,' Townsley said.

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Dole's ex-wife, Phyllis Buzick of Topeka, has a different view of Dole's entry into politics.

'The thing that bothers him the most about his injury was that it left him unable to participate in competitive sports,' Buzick said. 'My thinking is he channeled this competitiveness into the political arena.'

Regardless of the forces that led Dole into politics, the choice was well received by his hometown, which has never failed Dole in an election. The only election Dole has ever lost was for vice president as President Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976.

Dole routinely receives 70 percent or more of the vote in Russell County, some of which comes from Democrats.

Townsley, who is the town's political expert on Dole, says in many ways, Kansas's senior senator is a reflection of the conservative political attitudes of his hometown.

'He comes from a conservative nature,' Townsley says. 'That's the way Kansas is. That's the way people are raised. You'll find very few liberals in western Kansas.'

With the exception of some added polish, Townsley says Dole is nearly the same person who left Russell to become a political leader in Washington.

Kenny Dole says his brother has managed to stay in touch with Russell despite returning only three or four times a year for brief family visits.

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Dole's visits to Russell have become less frequent since his mother, Bina, died in 1983. Dole's father, Doran, died in 1975, two days after Bob Dole married his second wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole.

Dole, the oldest of four, also has two sisters, both living in Kansas. He still maintains a residence in Russell -- the house in which his mother lived. However, the house in which Dole was born and reared was torn down in the late 1970s.

For the most part, the face of Russell has changed very little over the years.

The red-brick streets from which Dole has launched previous political bids are the same from which he is expected to formally declare his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president later this fall.

Despite some popular belief in Russell that Dole will not run for president, most of the town is confident he will. The local chamber of commerce has set up a steering committee to handle preparations for the formal announcement.

Although Kenny Dole claims he doesn't know if or when his brother will formally enter the race, he is confident Bob Dole has what it takes to win.

'If everybody in the United States would sit down and talk with Bob Dole for five minutes, nobody else would get a vote,' he says.

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