Robert J. “Bob” Dole’s western Kansas values are a good fit for what Fort Hays State University values. The university will honor Dole at the FHSU Commencement ceremonies May 13 and 14, awarding him the university’s first-ever honorary doctorate. He will be the keynote speaker both days.
Dr. Chapman Rackaway, acting chair of the Department of Political Science, said Dole is still relevant for today’s students at FHSU. Traits like values and sacrifice and courage are synonymous with Bob Dole, who was born and raised in Russell.
“Dole was there in a time when people were willing to make sacrifices to get things done,” Rackaway said. “He sacrificed his body in World War II; he sacrificed his preferences sometimes to get things done in Congress.”
Dole, 92, learned the value of hard work growing up in the Depression, working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore. He played sports at the University of Kansas before opting to enlist in the Army in 1942. Dole was seriously wounded while serving in Italy in 1945. He spent three years recovering from injuries to his shoulder, back and right arm, which left him partially paralyzed in the arm. Dole then returned to college and earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from what was then Washburn Municipal College in Topeka.
“Just when you think you are courageous, think about a guy like Bob Dole,” Rackaway said. “He was a 19-year-old kid who stepped out on European soil with a gun in his hand. That’s courage.”
While in school after the war, Dole won a Republican seat in the Kansas Legislature. After graduation he returned home to Russell to practice law. He served as county attorney before winning a Congressional seat in 1960. Dole later became a U.S. Senator in 1968 and was elected Senate majority leader in 1984 -- the longest-serving Republican leader. He resigned in 1996 during his fifth term to run for President. Dole won the Republican nomination but lost to Bill Clinton in the general election. Dole also ran for Vice-President in 1976, when Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.
“He is simply one of the most important political figures in the last century of American politics, one of the more important Americans,” Rackaway said. “He is a reminder of what politics is like when it works.”
Dole was known for being able to compromise to get legislation passed.
“Let’s not discount how deft a conciliatory and compromise-driven leader he was,” Rackaway said. “I say that as a high compliment.
“No politician ever gets things done without compromise,” Rackaway added. “If you can engineer compromise, you’re a political maestro. That was one of his great gifts.”
The Washington of today, mired in gridlock, was not Dole’s Washington. With Dole, there was no backroom dealing – what you see is what you get.
“There is this very kind of perfect western Kansas attitude, which is, ‘I’ve got a job to do, let me get it done,’ ” Rackaway said.
Rackaway said it seems only right for FHSU to honor Dole, considering he grew up nearby. As well, Dole donated $100,000 to honor his sisters – Norma Jean Steele and Gloria Nelson – with plaques in the lobby of Hammond Hall to recognize their commitment to education.
“I think it’s perfectly appropriate,” Rackaway said. “Bob Dole represents the idea that people from a little town of just a few thousand people can rise to some of the great heights in the American political machine.
“Fort Hays State is the steward of western Kansas,” he added. “Both of them bear the marks of this place where we’re from. That’s a beautiful thing.”
While Dole had a long and distinguished political career, FHSU junior Rebecca Vincent is just starting out getting involved in politics. The organizational communications major joined the College Republicans club on campus just last month.
“I’ve always been super involved in politics,” Vincent said. “My family, we’ve got really strong Republican ties.”
That’s why it seemed only natural for Vincent, who is from Frederick, Colo., to join College Republicans. She hopes to attend commencement and listen to a political icon speak.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Vincent said, “not just for College Republicans but Fort Hays State in general.”
After a lifetime of public service, Dole has kept active in politics in his retirement. He has devoted time to speaking engagements and his law firm. Dole has written several books, including his memoir, “One Soldier’s Story.”
Rackaway can hardly wait to meet Dole when he comes to Hays in May.
“I’m super excited to meet him,” Rackaway said. “There aren’t too many politicians I can get a little celebrity awe-struck on. I am incredibly excited to meet Bob Dole.”