Town awaits hero's crowning glory Roots: Russell, Kan., birthplace of Bob Dole, is anticipating a new tourist industry arising from the fame of its favorite son. That is, if he wins the presidential election.

Sun Journal

July 22, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RUSSELL, Kan. -- Like the hard red winter wheat that is its lifeblood, this lonely town on the prairie is waiting to bloom.

At least, that's the view of some in wind-swept Russell, Kan., where Bob Dole was born 73 years ago today. The actual spot where he entered the world is no longer standing: his family's three-room house, not much bigger than a shack, beside the Union Pacific railroad tracks -- on the wrong side of the tracks, as Dole has said.

Other landmarks from his early days remain, though. And local folks already can foresee a new tourist industry springing up around the roots of their favorite son (never mind the latest discouraging poll numbers), who is about to do for tiny Russell what Bill Clinton did for Hope, Ark., and Jimmy Carter did for Plains, Ga.

"Anyone who wants to understand me," Dole said here in March, "must first understand the community of Russell, Kansas, U.S.A."

Dole, of course, has been gone for decades, since shortly after his election to Congress in the waning days of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency. But he returns from time to time, especially campaign time.

This afternoon, the Republican candidate plans another visit -- his third of the '96 contest. There will be a public birthday celebration at a park with friends and family, including his two sisters, who still live in town.

Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, who isn't well-known here (unlike Dole's first wife, Phyllis, who lives in Topeka and has stayed in touch), will spend the night, so the campaign's admen can shoot footage for commercials and a biographical film to be shown at next month's Republican convention. The Doles will stay in the modest house where he grew up.

Republican strategists view Dole's life story as his biggest asset in the race against President Clinton this fall. What has to happen, they say, is for most of America, which still knows little or nothing about him, to learn the stirring details of that story -- of what he gave to his community and country in wartime, and what Russell gave back to him.

In Russell, however, the big thinkers who sip coffee every morning at the cafe on Main Street are far ahead of the political planners.

They are already talking about building the Dole presidential library. The library, they figure, would be a world-class tourist lure -- and potential economic salvation for a town of 4,700 souls that is struggling, to use Dole's description.

Besides the library, visitors would be able to tour Dole's carefully preserved house on Maple Street, as well as other sites, such as the grain elevator nearby, where his father worked for many years, and the county courthouse that became the launching pad for Dole's political career.

For the moment, talk of a presidential library has gone underground, much as the wheat crop, to be sown a few weeks from now, will lie dormant through the long, harsh Kansas winter. After all, if Dole should lose well, who can name the hometowns of George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis?

"We don't want to jinx these things," explains Everett Dumler, a retired manager of the Chamber of Commerce. Like dozens of other old-timers, he's known Bob since they attended Russell High together during the Great Depression, still remembered in western Kansas as the Dirty '30s, for the dust storms that nearly wiped out the farm economy.

Dumler's vision is to link the presidential libraries of Truman, Eisenhower and Dole along a 250-mile stretch of Interstate 70, which shoots across the Great Plains from Kansas City to Denver.

"They could call it the presidential highway," Dumler suggests, pointing out that the Eisenhower Center, in Ike's hometown of Abilene, ranks as one of Kansas' top tourist attractions.

So far, however, Russell's efforts to merchandise its most famous former resident (strangely enough, another Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, also grew up here, but his candidacy never got off the ground) are starting more slowly.

At the Conoco gas station on I-70, "Dole '96" paperweights, carved out of the distinctive local limestone, have been on sale for months.

Only one has been sold. Perhaps the price ($31.99), not politics, is to blame.

The Olde Tower, an antique shop in a converted gas station and restaurant, added the words "Dole collectibles" in fluorescent yellow letters to its sign out on the interstate. It was the boldest move yet in the nascent Dole industry. Alas, the store recently closed its doors for lack of business.

Barbara S. Pitcock, the owner, says the Dole items sold quite well, particularly the $59.95 afghan featuring Bob's likeness and a tapestry of local and state icons: the high school and downtown business district, farm combines and sunflowers.

Barbara and her husband, David, whose grandmother went to school with Bob, also had thousands of Dole T-shirts made up, featuring the presidential seal.

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