RUSSELL, Kan. — The long lines of well-wishers were here again. So were the Dole for President T-shirts and the striking red, white and blue “America’s Choice” campaign buttons.
This time, though, Bob Dole was back not to launch another presidential campaign but to hang out for a few days in his old hometown.
“It’s still home,” he said. “There’s only one home, and that’s wherever you grew up.”
Dole’s appearance here Friday and Saturday was a last-minute decision. Even his sister, Norma Jean Steele, who lives in Russell, didn’t know her brother was on his way until Monday.
Doctors cleared the way for Dole, now just a month shy of his 88th birthday, just days before, allowing him to return to the town that shaped him and was the launching point for two of his three runs for the White House, as well as his 1976 campaign for the vice presidency.
“He said, ‘I want to go to Russell,’ ” Steele said. “ ‘I want to see my family.’ ”
Steele and other longtime residents here had wondered whether they would ever see the former five-term U.S. senator in Russell again. Dole spent much of the last few years convalescing following a fall in his Washington home and then a series of setbacks while in Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Dole wound up spending nearly a year at Walter Reed. He entered the hospital for knee surgery, but stayed after he contracted pneumonia a couple of times and struggled with a slow-healing deep blood blister. He was released in November, but said Friday that he was still weaker than he would have liked.
“I’m getting stronger every day and walking better every day,” Dole said. “It’s going to take awhile after all that time in the hospital.”
Dole had been saying since he left the hospital that he was eager to return to Kansas.
“He’s just very determined,” said his wife, former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who made the trip with him. “He never complains.”
On Friday and Saturday, a thinner Dole than most Kansans are used to seeing walked on his own, rode in a parade atop a firetruck named for his father, spent two hours greeting a line of well-wishers at a hotel, then basked in spontaneous applause from diners as he entered Russell’s well-known Meridy’s Restaurant & Lounge just off Interstate 70.
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