RUSSELL, KAN. — 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.
"We way overbought," she confesses. "I don't want this to sound bad for Dole, but we sold them this weekend at a garage sale."
For years, the town fathers have posted billboards along I-70 boasting that Russell is Dole's home.
But relatively few of the 18,000 drivers who pass by each day take the one-mile trip into town for a look.
Those who do find a place surprisingly unchanged from the one Dole knew when he returned, paralyzed, from the battlefields of Italy in 1945 to begin a grueling physical recovery and an even longer rise to the top of American politics.
The four-block business district is still paved with red bricks, as it was back in the 1920s, when an oil boom touched off Russell's only brush with real prosperity. Thousands of oil rigs still stud the countryside in and around town, squeezing five or 10 barrels of oil a day from fields that have largely played out.
On Main Street, Banker's clothing store, where Bob bought his first suit (they padded the right shoulder, the one that was shot away in the war), is still in business.
These days, Dole for President T-shirts are displayed in the store's window.
The town's last movie house, the Dream Theater, which was Dole's window on a wider world, is for sale and could go out of business.
But a new wheat-processing plant, brought to town with Bob Dole's help and $1.4 million in economic development money from the federal government, has added several dozen jobs.
Across the tracks, at the corner of Maple and 11th, perhaps a dozen cars a day stop in front of the tidy two-bedroom house where Dole was raised. Remodeled and clad with brick in the 1950s, this was where Dole's mother, Bina, lived until her death in 1983.
Bob Dole is now the owner, and he has lovingly left it exactly as it was the day Bina left for the last time. There's the Marie Osmond album near the record player in the living room, a neat row of square glass jars filled with baking ingredients on the kitchen counter and family photographs everywhere.
Also preserved inside, for history, are the primitive tape recorder Bob used in law school, his red-and-blue varsity letters from high school and the double bed where he will sleep tonight.
The house isn't open to the public.
But his older sister, Gloria Nelson, graciously and tirelessly provides guided tours to reporters and photographers who are again making the pilgrimage to Russell.
"I tell you, it's unreal. We've had like 60 of them. But it's worth it," she adds, quickly. "It's going to pay off."
Pub Date: 7/22/96