Russell, Kansas, bids farewell to its most favorite son, Bob Dole
RUSSELL, Kansas — Bob Dole’s hometown said a proud farewell to the former senator one last time on Saturday.
The town of just over 4,000 in central Kansas packed a memorial service at St. Mary Queen of Angels Catholic Church. The ceremony happened near the house where Russell’s most famous resident grew up and returned to after suffering wounds in World War II that would challenge him until his death this month.
Some of the people who came knew Dole back when he was the boy who lived on Maple Street and was the soda jerk at Dawson’s drugstore. And even after Dole left town for a high-profile life in Washington, they said he continued to look out for his hometown.
“He never forgot Russell, he was always ready to come back home and do what he could,” Janet Funk said. “And Russell always welcomed him with open arms.”
Funk lives on a farm just outside of Russell. Her family has been friendly with the Doles her entire life, ever since her father and Dole were classmates at Russell High School.
She said people in town take pride in what Dole became — U.S. Senate majority leader and Republican presidential nominee — but are just as proud of what he never lost sight of: his Russell roots.
“When he came home, he was a hometown boy,” Funk said. “He was a part of us.”
Elsie Keller, now 97, remembers growing up as good friends with Dole and his sister, Gloria, in Russell. In more recent years, she’d often bake a cake for Dole during his periodic visits back to see family.
And she said she’s thankful for this final chance to say goodbye, right here in the town that meant so much to them.
“It’s quite touching,” Keller said. “It was an honor to have known him.”
The senator from Russell also brought people to the town on Saturday.
“It’s hard to imagine a Kansas without Bob Dole,” Gov. Laura Kelly said. “And I’m not sure I want to.”
Kelly, U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall and former Sen. Pat Roberts each spoke at the service.
“While his achievements put him at the pinnacles of power in a public life,” Kelly said during her speech, “it was his unmatched character, his integrity, his wit, his optimism and his work ethic — forged right here in Russell — that won him the hearts of Kansans.”
Dole’s widow, former U.S. senator and one-time cabinet member Elizabeth, and other family members watched from the front row. Former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sat in a pew directly behind Kelly.
The speakers highlighted some well-known memories of Dole’s connection with Russell — growing up poor during the Dust Bowl, his early jobs as a paperboy and a soda jerk and how the town came together to collect money in a cigar box to help pay for Dole’s medical care after he suffered injuries in Italy during World War II.
There were lesser-known stories, too. Roberts told of how Dole once saved the Kansas wheat harvest after the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to cancel it.
But the consistent theme that ran through the memorial was the deep connection between the man who rose to the highest levels of American leadership and the small town in rural Kansas that raised him.
“To the people of Russell, to the people of Kansas, thank you for the manner in which you have shaped, treated, respected a man now so worthy of our admiration,” Moran said. “This town should be so proud.”
Later Saturday in Topeka, many of the same politicians spoke about Dole’s life at a service in the state Capitol.
Dole’s flag-draped coffin sat in front of the rostrum as Kelly, Marshall, Moran, and former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker and former U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery paid tribute, while former Attorney General Bob Stephan and former Gov. Sam Brownback looked on.
“We’ve lost the ability — as Senator Dole did so often — to reach across the aisle to get things done,” Kassebaum Baker said in an interview after the service.
Slattery, a Democrat, said Dole was a tough politician but “a skillful legislator who had a heart for the underdog.” Dole’s advocacy for the disabled and and the food stamp program demonstrated that, Slattery said.
“And on the difficult issue of civil rights, Bob Dole was on the right side of history,” Slattery said. Dole voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act the following year and supported a national holiday to honor slain Martin Luther King Jr.
Dole’s casket will now travel back to Washington, D.C., and be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter@davidcondos.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.
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