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What Russell, Kansas, meant to late Senator Bob Dole

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Senator Bob Dole's flag-draped casket is at church today in Russell, Kan., his hometown - the former Republican leader and three-time presidential candidate and war hero revered in Russell. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, Bob Dole always credited a hardscrabble childhood on the prairie for his strength, his humor and his pragmatism.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Bob Dole was born here in Russell, Kan., July 22, 1923. I'm standing in front of the house where he grew up, which is not that large. During the Depression, Bob Dole, his three siblings and parents moved into the basement so they could rent out the top floor to make some extra money.

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MORRIS: At the Historical Society in Russell, about half the displays are devoted to Bob Dole.

ALDEAN BANKER: Yeah, he was a handsome guy - wasn't he? - very handsome and...

MORRIS: Aldean Banker is showing off a big photo of a dapper teenage Bob Dole. Dole worked long hours in his dad's struggling grain business and at the drugstore on Main Street. He was a star athlete recruited to play basketball at the University of Kansas. The first in his family to go to college, he quit to go to war. Grievously wounded attacking a Nazi machine gun position, he narrowly survived to endure years of surgeries that left him with a withered right arm and only partial use of his left one.

BANKER: Anybody who has gone through what he's gone through would have maybe given up, and he did not do that. His work ethic did not allow him to do that.

MORRIS: Back in Russell, Dole tried to strengthen his shattered body working out with homemade weights on pulleys. Banker says townsfolk stuffed donations in a cigar box at the drugstore to help with expenses.

BANKER: I think he was overwhelmed by the support that he got from the city, and he never forgot that.

MORRIS: Russell voters launched Dole's political career. And in 1976, Gerald Ford tapped Senator Dole to be his presidential running mate. Dole insisted that the first campaign stop after the convention would be Russell, Kan.

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BOB DOLE: But I want to reemphasize, as I did before, if I have done anything, it's because of people I have known up and down Main Street. And I can recall the time when I needed help, the people of Russell helped.

MORRIS: Dole broke down on stage as Gerald Ford and townspeople applauded supportively. He struggled most of a minute to regain composure. After losing the election, Senator Dole worked across the aisle, joining liberal Democrats to improve food assistance, Social Security and the rights of people with disabilities. Dole fought pitched partisan battles, but he never slandered his political opponents as enemies - never called them evil. That kind of talk was way too grandiose for Bob Dole. He maintained a self-deprecating sense of humor and perspective grounded, he said, in his childhood on the high plains of Kansas.

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DOLE: The first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. And under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small. And if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong.

MORRIS: Dole's motorcade will drive down Main Street in Russell one last time today, then to Topeka before he's buried in Arlington National Cemetery. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.