In Bob Dole’s Hometown, Kansans Grieve for the Man and His Political Style

RUSSELL, Kan. — A quarter-century has passed since Bob Dole left the Senate and lost his bid for the presidency. But in his hometown on the Kansas Plains, a place Mr. Dole gave near-mythic status in his political origin story, he is still everywhere: On the side of the grain elevator. On a downtown mural. On street signs and plaques and, at the local historical society, in black-and-white photos where he is hunting jack rabbits and wearing a Russell High Broncos basketball jersey.

As Russell’s 4,400 residents mourned Mr. Dole, who died on Sunday at age 98, many also grieved for their hometown senator’s approach to governance, one in which compromises were celebrated and opponents were not enemies. They said a little more Bob, as people in Russell called him, might just help detoxify the national discourse.

While announcing his plan to seek the 1980 presidential nomination in Russell, Mr. Dole said he was committed to getting the American people to “believe in themselves again.”Credit…Bettmann Collection via Getty Images

“The fighting we’ve got going on now, I know he was so against that,” said Lance Waymaster, who farms outside Russell and who got to know Mr. Dole through the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, which is situated just off Bob Dole Drive.

Mr. Dole spent much of his adult life in Washington, but his affection for Russell stretched beyond the standard romance between politician and hometown. He dispensed advice to Kansas Republicans, made sure his childhood home near the railroad tracks stayed in his family and read the newsletter from the V.F.W. post, where he was a charter member. But most of all, he spoke with enduring gratitude and emotion about how Russell residents pooled money in a cigar box to help cover his expenses when he returned from World War II with severe shoulder, arm and spine injuries.

Lance Waymaster and Fred Weigel Jr., who knew Mr. Dole, at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6240. Mr. Dole was a member.Credit…Christopher Smith for The New York Times

“There ought to be at least one place for every person where he or she is accepted with unjudging love and strengthened and reassured by it, and for me that place is here,” Mr. Dole said in Russell in 1979, when he announced his first of three campaigns for president.

Russell loved him back. Daron Woelk, who owns a jewelry store on the brick-paved Main Street, described a treasured photo of himself as a toddler with Mr. Dole, in which the senator signed his name and joked that young Daron looked like a good Republican. The message stuck. Mr. Woelk was elected to the county commission last year on the Republican ticket.

“Bob was one of a kind — unfortunately,” said Mr. Woelk, whose store is just up the street from the limestone courthouse with a statue of the former senator. “I think we’d all be better off if there were more men like him.”

About half of the population of Russell gathered in 1979 to hear Mr. Dole announce his presidential plans. Credit…John Filo/Associated Press

Mr. Dole was a proud Republican who served in party leadership and fought fiercely for conservative policies. He called wars “Democrat wars” and was referred to by some as “Nixon’s hatchet man,” but he also made celebrated compromises with Democrats. He helped expand the food stamp program, rescue Social Security and pass the Americans With Disabilities Act, partnering with liberals whom he disagreed with on other issues. More recently, he endorsed Donald J. Trump for president, but met with President Biden, an old colleague in the Senate, after he took office.

Larry Nelson, Mr. Dole’s nephew, who lives in and maintains the senator’s childhood home on the north side of town, questioned whether his uncle’s philosophy would resonate in Washington today.

“Bob was not your run-of-the-mill politician ever; Bob was a statesman,” Mr. Nelson said. “He would not fit in this group of people on the Hill now.”

Larry Nelson, Mr. Dole’s nephew, and his wife, Cathy, in front of their home. Mr. Dole grew up there.Credit…Christopher Smith for The New York Times

But Mr. Dole’s approach worked in Kansas, a conservative state that often values pragmatism over party purity. The current governor, Laura Kelly, won on the Democratic ticket in 2018 amid a backlash to a sweeping package of tax cuts engineered by Republicans that left the state in a budget crisis. Russell was also the childhood home of Arlen Specter, who represented Pennsylvania in the Senate for decades, first as a Republican, then as a Democrat.

“I think they’re going to have to not be on such rigid ‘I’m a Democrat, I’m a Republican, and we will not do anything together,’” Aldean Banker, a Russell resident who once served on state Republican committees, said. She was an alternate delegate for Mr. Dole at a national convention but voted for Ms. Kelly in 2018. “I think we’re going to have to learn to give and take a little and go back to having a meeting of minds.”

Russell was and remains deeply Republican. Last year, Mr. Trump received 81 percent of the votes in Russell County, which includes the city and surrounding countryside. About 90 percent of Russell residents are white, and about 24 percent of people are 65 or older, compared with 16 percent statewide. The economy is driven by a broad range of industries: agriculture, oil, health care, manufacturing and retail, both along Interstate 70 and in the busy downtown, where a local radio station plays all day on outdoor speakers.

Almost everyone in Russell seems to have a Bob Dole story, or several. Some shared steak dinners with him at Meridy’s Restaurant and Lounge. Others recalled him stopping by the V.F.W. post, where Dole pineapple juice was served in support of his campaign. Others remembered that the senator would gamely stick out his left hand when they extended their right arm; Mr. Dole’s war injuries left him unable to shake right-handed.

Mr. Dole greeted Russell residents in 1976 while running for vice president on a ticket with Gerald R. Ford.Credit…Bettmann Collection via Getty Images

“He would keep you from thinking you were embarrassing yourself, making a clumsy move,” said Mayor Jim Cross, a rare Democrat in Russell, but a proud Dole voter whose daughter was among a large local contingent that watched Mr. Dole accept the nomination at the 1996 Republican National Convention.

Though he lived in Washington, Mr. Dole remained a frequent visitor to Russell until recently, when his declining health made travel impossible. He remained engaged, though, posting on Twitter about Kosovo last week and keeping track of Kansas politics.

In a column Mr. Dole wrote shortly before his death that was published in The Washington Post this week, he reflected on his journey from west-central Kansas to some of the highest perches in American government. He also lamented political divisions and said, “Bipartisanship is the minimum we should expect from ourselves.”

“My home at birth was a three-room house,” Mr. Dole wrote. “I grew up during the Dust Bowl, when so many of us helplessly watched our livelihoods blow away with the wind. I have always felt humbled to live in a nation that would allow my unlikely story to unfold.”

As that story unfolded, and as Mr. Dole kept returning to Russell, residents said he instilled a sense of possibility in them, too.

Troy Waymaster, a Kansas state representative, in Russell, where as a 10-year-old boy, he heard Mr. Dole announce his run for presidency.Credit…Christopher Smith for The New York Times

Troy Waymaster, who at age 10 looked on from Main Street when Mr. Dole announced his second run for the presidency in 1987, said that speech began his interest in politics. He now presides over the Appropriations Committee in the Kansas House of Representatives.

Mr. Waymaster, a Republican who lives just outside Russell and farms with his father, Lance, said Mr. Dole called a few months ago when he was getting ready to work on the wheat crop. They talked about next year’s election for governor, when Republicans hope to reclaim the seat.

Mr. Waymaster said Mr. Dole often pushed for more bipartisanship and more compromise. That art may not be completely dead. Last month, Mr. Waymaster joined other Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill creating exemptions to employers’ Covid-19 vaccine mandates. Ms. Kelly disappointed some of her fellow Democrats by signing it into law.

“I know there are Kansans who believe this legislation goes too far, and there are others who believe this legislation doesn’t go far enough,” the governor said in a statement. “But I was elected to lead, and leadership means seeking compromise.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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