Bob Dole, American Hero (Part I)
Outlasting Every Challenge
I first met Senator Robert J. Dole when he spoke at my high school graduation in 1974 in Downs, KS. He talked to us about always doing our best – a commitment to being our best – in our studies, in our careers, and in our communities. The takeaway: “Whatever you do in life, you have to be fully committed.” My graduating class could really see that Dole was the authentic, being the best he could be in the service of our country. I never imagined that less than 15 years later, Sen. Dole would personally invite me to Washington, D.C., to meet with President George H.W. Bush. During that conversation in the Oval Office, President Bush invited me to join the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports alongside newly-appointed Chairman Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sen. Dole wasted no time in formally nominating me and making it official.
Sen. Bob Dole introduces Paralympic medalist Kevin Saunders to President George H.W. Bush.
I had no idea that my first opportunity to vote would be as a Republican when I voted for incumbent President Gerald Ford and his Vice Presidential running mate, Bob Dole in 1976. I wanted so badly for Ford and Dole to lead our nation, as Dole had grown up in Russell, KS. Even then I could see that he was a good person who only wanted good things for Kansas and great things for our country. If you don’t know much about Bob Dole, I can guarantee that his life story will be one of the most remarkable ones you ever read.
His experiences will provide you with insights that will help you realize you are capable of “Finding A Champion Within” in your life. During his high school years, he was an outstanding athlete in football, basketball and track. He went on to enroll in premed classes at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS, and continued in all 3 sports at the Division 1 level, until being called to fight in World War II in 1942.
Bob Dole is truly a Champion of Champions. He completed his studies and become a lawyer and one of the most powerful and influential politicians of the 20th century. At 93 years young, he is enjoying life and still working at the law firm of Alston & Bird in Washington D.C., where he lives with his wife Elizabeth Dole.
From the Wheat Fields of Kansas to the Front Lines
Bob Dole was born in Russell, Kansas, the son of Doran and Bina Dole. His father, who had moved the family to Russell while Dole was still a toddler, made a living by running a small creamery. Among his father’s customers was the father of Arlen Specter (US Senator, Pennsylvania from 1981-2011) who ran a junkyard in the town and used Dole’s scales to weigh junk. During the Great Depression, which hit Kansas very hard, the Dole family moved into the basement of their home and rented out the rest of the house. As a boy, he took many odd jobs around Russell, and he would later work as a soda jerk at Dawson’s drug store.
Bob Dole and siblings, 1934. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
High school portrait. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
I was a reasonably good student in those days—pulling much better grades than I would in college-enough to gain admission to the National Honor Society. I was the sports editor of our school newspaper, The Pony Express, and president of Hi-Y, an organization of young Christians. For all this, I never regarded popularity as something to be sought; it was merely a by-product of my long-standing dream of becoming a great athlete. But apparently the girls liked me, because I was tall, had dark, wavy hair, and spoke politely to them. Near the close of my senior year, the members of the Russell High Girls Reserve voted me as their “Ideal Boy.”I once even modeled some clothes for a department store spring fashion show. Despite my natural shyness, I seemed to connect with the audience. I never hitched up with an “Ideal Girl,” however. Not that I was uninterested. I was simply too busy. After my studies, sports, and doing my job at Dawson’s till nearly eleven o’clock each night, my social life was low on the priority list.
Besides, I’d have plenty of time to meet girls once I got to college. College? Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. Yet more and more, I noticed that the most successful and respected customers – those who really had clout in Dawson’s – were doctors. Moreover, medical men such as Dr. Koerber, our family physician, and Dr. White, another local practitioner I admired, contributed enormously to the overall life of the community.
Bob Dole (left), during his senior year in 1941. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
I developed a plan: somehow I was going to earn enough money to attend college. I’d go on to med school, eventually become one of those doctors who didn’t have to worry about which way the wind blew or how much rain we were likely to get this summer. I’d have some sense of security, and the satisfaction of doing something of significance to help other people, while providing for myself – and my wife and kids…Ha! Listen to me, thinking about a wife and kids…I’ve hardly been on a real date.
As my ambition took root, so did my conviction that college held the key to future success. Even my graduation ceremonies seemed to point in that direction. In June 1941, I sat with the graduating seniors of Russell High and listened intently as Reverend Rautenstraus reminded us of the biblical injunction, “Narrow is the gate and strait the way that leads to life.” For me, the narrow gate led straight toward the University of Kansas.
Recruited by Legendary Basketball Coach Phog Allen
KU Basketball Coach Phog Allen
Dole graduated from Russell High School in the spring of 1941 and enrolled at the University of Kansas the following fall. Dole had been a star high school athlete in Russell, and influential Kansas basketball coach Forrest “Phog” Allen traveled to Russell to recruit him to play for the basketball team.
Coach Allen was KU’s legendary coach, and possibly the best-loved figure in the state. For Kansans, college basketball has always been king, so much so that KU had brought in the game’s inventor, James Naismith, as the university’s athletic director. Naismith mentored some of the greatest coaches and players ever to step on the hardwood. Standouts include Allen, recognized as the “father of modern basketball,” and Adoplh Rupp, who’s legacy of victory with the University of Kentucky basketball program was commemorated with the naming of “Rupp Arena.”
I had met Allen’s son, Milton-we called him “Mitt” – when I worked for the Kaw Pipeline that summer. He was playing for an amateur basketball team in Russell. When his dad came to visit, Mitt told him about his friend Bob Dole who was a hardworking, ambitious guy who worked over at Dawson’s Drugstore – and, “oh, he’s not a bad basketball player, either.” I about died on the spot when the most respected coach in college basketball walked in to Dawson’s with his son. Phog Allen stepped up to the soda jerk counter, his son introduced us, and Phog shook my hand.”I hear you’re pretty good with a basketball,” Phog boomed, his voice indeed resonating like a foghorn on a ship. Every eye in Dawson’s turned in my direction.
“ER, ah, yessir,” I mustered.
“Why don’t you come on over to KU next fall? We have some spots on the freshman team; you might fit in well.”
I thought for a moment of my friends Chet and Bub, and how they despised KU. But come on, guys, this is Phog Allen. “Ah…aghh…yessir. That would be fine.”
A few weeks later, I received a letter from Phog Allen reiterating the message he had conveyed at Dawson’s. “Great to meet ya. Look forward to seeing you in Lawrence in the fall.” The letter contained no scholarship offers, but it was a bona fide invitation from Phog Allen to try out for his team. Only a fool would have passed up such an opportunity. I learned a lot from Phog Allen. He was a wonderful man and a coach.
Dole (last row, second from left, #6) played for the University of Kansas Jayhawks under legendary Coach Phog Allen. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
Everyone was so friendly at college that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why people referred to the University of Kansas as “Snob Hill”. Wrapped around the rolling hill of Lawrence, a midsize town about forty miles west of Kansas City, the KU campus seemed to sprawl in every direction. I’m going to love running here, I thought, not just on the flat stretches, but up and down the hillsides.
Soon four thousand students would swarm the campus—nearly the equivalent of the entire population of Russell – but because I was trying out for the KU football team, I traveled to Lawrence in late August 1941, a few weeks before classes were scheduled to begin. True to his word, Harold Dumler, my hometown friend, helped ease the transition from life in Russell to life in Lawrence. Harold introduced me to the guys in the Kappa Sigma fraternity, and although several other frats ‘rushed’ me, my loyalties were to Harold. He helped me get a job waiting on tables in the Kappa Sig fraternity house dining room. My pay was $12.50 per month and all that I could eat. I thought that was a pretty good deal. Better yet, as a member of the fraternity, I could live less expensively at the frat house.
At KU, I continued my early-morning running regimen before the other guys in the frat house awakened. In addition to my workouts with the football team, I also continued working out with my homemade barbells, which I’d persuaded Harold Dumler to transport from Russell to Lawrence in his car, along with some of my other belongings. I kept the weights in the frat house and used them regularly, working to tone my body and build my strength.
It was now five weeks into the school year, and I’d found a new job working from one-thirty until three-thirty each afternoon, for forty-five cents per hour, which I considered plenty good. I could have worked longer and earned more, but then I’d have had to quit the football team and I didn’t want to do that. I was doing well on the freshman squad’s first team, and although it was rough scrimmaging the varsity ever night, I loved it.
Dole running with the football. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
In October, I received a real surprise. The KU football team was playing Nebraska, and our coach decided to take the freshman along. “We go Saturday morning at 6:00 A.M. and come back the same day,” I informed the folks. “We’re going in a special train. They pay for everything, our tickets, our food, and our train fare. We should have a lot of fun; KU will probably get beat, though.”
The trip to Nebraska was great fun all right. Unfortunately, our team didn’t play so well against the tough Cornhuskers. The following week, when writing to the family, I admitted: “About all I can say about the Nebraska-Kansas game is that KU had eleven men on the field…even though it didn’t look like it.”
WWII in the Background
With World War II escalating in Europe and Asia, we tried to carry on as normal on campus, concentrating as best we could on our studies and class work, planning fraternity parties and other events. But it was all a bit surreal. For example, I had gone out for the basketball team – and Phog Allen had picked me to be a part of the freshmen team – yet somehow this didn’t seem important now. I prepared for semester final exams, but it all felt hollow. Some of my friends had already enlisted in the military, and many others were on their way. I think we all knew instinctively that our college days would soon be over.
Dole, far right, wins 440 yard dash at the University of Kansas. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
I joined the track team that spring, won some races, and contributed to the success of our team; I just missed setting a record in the indoor 440-yard dash. Football, basketball, and track, that’s what I lived for-that, and a good chocolate milk shake.
Looking back, it’s amazing how naïve I was, thinking, hoping, praying that the war would come to a speedy conclusion, that it wouldn’t disrupt my world any more that it had already. I wasn’t being selfish or unconcerned about others, there was just a sense that until things changed, I should continue doing the only things I knew how to do. So when the school year ended, I worked through the summer of 1942, and started my sophomore year at KU, all the while, waiting to hear that I’d been called up to serve. Hundreds of Midwestern young men had already been drafted, and it became more and more obvious that few males-especially those of us with athletic body types and conventional attitudes of patriotism -would be excluded from the war effort. Deferments, even for older guys and those with physical problems or other mitigating circumstances, were getting fewer.
That school year, I played another season of football, and competed in track, basketball, and spring football practice again. A full year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, I was still in school. But it was getting to be an exercise in futility. Who could concentrate on school when almost every week somebody else close to you was going off to war? Each week, it seemed, we were having farewell party for another buddy who was leaving. I never missed a single farewell party that I knew about. On the other hand, I missed about half my classes. I couldn’t focus on my studies—as hard as I tried—and my grades suffered, plunging to C level, and threatening to dip even lower than that.
Off to War
Second Lt. Bob Dole.
In 1942, Dole joined the United States Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps to fight in World War II. Dole became a second lieutenant in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
In April 1945, while engaged in combat near Castel d’Aiano in the Apennine Mountains southwest of Bologna, Italy, Dole was hit by German machine gun fire in his upper right back, and his right arm was also badly injured.
Dole’s long ordeal is known by now. During an Allied offensive near Florence, 2nd Lt. Dole led a platoon that was ordered to capture a hill. When his radio man was shot, Dole dragged him into a foxhole, not realizing he was already dead. Afterward, Dole was hit in the shoulder by a bullet or a shell fragment and lay face down on the battlefield, in dirt bloodied to mud, believing his arms had been shot clean out of their sockets.
Bob Dole before and after his injury. At left (1943), Dole, who is 6′ 2″ tall, weighs 192 lbs. At right (1945), 122 lbs. – a loss of 70 lbs. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
As Lee Sandlin describes, when fellow soldiers saw the extent of his injuries all they thought they could do was to “give him the largest dose of morphine they dared and write an ‘M’ for ‘morphine’ on his forehead in his own blood, so that nobody else who found him would give him a second, fatal dose.” Dole had to wait nine hours on the battlefield before being taken to the 15th Evacuation Hospital, where he began a recovery that would take until 1948 – 3 years – at Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. For 39 months he endured a second infancy, relearning how to eat, dress, bathe, walk and use the toilet.
His right arm was paralyzed; Dole often carried a pen in his right hand to signal that he could not shake hands with that arm.
Dole exercises using pulleys. Photograph courtesy of the Dole Archives.
There were days when those hands would milk a cow, dig dandelions, deliver groceries, serve drugstore Cokes to sweating Kansas farmers, days when those athletic hands grabbed a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for a college prank and hauled it up three flights of stairs. That era ended April 14, 1945, in the hills of Italy, in the final weeks of the war in Europe, when a shell ripped through Dole’s right shoulder and fractured his neck and spine.
Today, if you want to know what it’s like to have Bob Dole’s disability, tie one hand — the one you write with — behind your back, and wear a glove on the other one. That’s what Dole instructed his biographer, Jake Thompson, to do for a day.
“Every day you get up, it’s a little bit of a challenge,” Dole says. There is no self-pity or bitterness in his voice, just understatement. Dole was a 6 foot 2, 194-pound jock, with plans to become a doctor. Even now, decades later, the story unfolds like a humorless joke.
“I think, you just tell enough — you just tell sort of a peek,” Dole says. “You don’t lay it all out, um, that you lost 70 pounds and that you had a temperature of 108.7. They’d probably think your brain is cooked,” he says with a dry laugh.
The hospital where Dole recovered from his wounds, the former Battle Creek Sanitarium, is now named Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in honor of three patients who became United States Senators: Dole, Philip Hart and Daniel Inouye.
Dole was decorated three times, receiving two Purple Hearts for his injuries, and the Bronze Star with combat “V” for valor for his attempt to assist a downed radio man.
He was encouraged to see a Chicago orthopedist by the name of Hampar Kelikian, who had been working with veterans returning from war. Although during their first meeting Kelikian told Dole that he would never be able to recover fully, the encounter changed Dole’s outlook on life, who years later wrote that Kelikian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, “inspired me to focus on what I had left and what I could do with it, rather than complaining what had been lost.” Dr. K, as Dole later came to affectionately call him, operated on him seven times, free of charge, and had, in Dole’s words, “an impact on my life second only to my family.”
Before his death, the Dr. K shared, “I knew you were going to be a senator, but I won’t be satisfied until you’re in the White House.”
Look our for Part II – Overcoming Adversity Every Day, next.
Keep Going for the GOLD! Never Give Up!
Kevin Saunders is a World Champion Paralympian, motivational speaker, athlete (with multiple gold medals) and author. Kevin Saunders was the first person with a disability appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness Sports (only 20 people are selected for this nationwide) by the President of the United States. Kevin Saunders was first chosen to be appointed to the prestigious Council by President George H.W. Bush and was the only person reappointed by to this Council by President Bill Clinton and he was reappointed again by President George W. Bush as a constituent expert to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. Learn more about Kevin’s story and accomplishments.
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