Former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole spoke with humor and emotion Friday at the unveiling of a large bronze statue at Washburn University honoring his lengthy political career defined by a practical eagerness to seize common ground with political allies and rivals.
The artwork positioned on a square pedestal in a high-traffic area of campus depicts Dole in a standing position with his hands close to his waist in a position reflecting a result of devastating injuries sustained in World War II. The new landmark outside Carnegie Hall was revealed to Dole, who was seated on a brisk September morning, and more than 250 people in attendance.
“Washburn is a great university. It really gave me a new life, a new goal, something to work for,” said Dole, who graduated in 1952 with bachelor’s and law degrees. “For my generation, which had won a war overseas but then had to create a better future back home, Washburn gave us that new start through education.”
Dole, 95, spoke to the audience for 10 minutes while reminiscing about his college days, friends, family and, of course, politics. He joked with the crowd, suggesting he didn’t deserve the recognition. He said his vision, hearing and walking skills had eroded, but as an emeritus politician, he stubbornly retained the ability to talk.
He took a serious look back to his years as the Senate’s Republican leader, and concluded the modern Senate had lost interest in collaboration.
“Today, it doesn’t seem to be working. When I was the leader, I had friends on the Democratic side and Republican side and we got things done. We worked together,” he said to applause.
He said he likely traveled back and forth to Kansas more than 1,000 times during 36 years in Congress. At one point during this journey back to Kansas, he choked up and briefly struggled for the right words. The crowd simply applauded through his silence. “Thanks,” he said.
“I’m a proud Kansan,” he said. “I love this state. I love the people in the state, whether they’re Republican, Democratic, independents. You serve the people. You don’t serve only members of your own party. We don’t have all the wisdom in our party and they don’t have all the wisdom in their party, but together we can work out a pretty good compromise.”
Washburn President Jerry Farley said the privately financed statue honored Dole’s career as a public servant and embodied what dedicated people could accomplish in life. Dole left Washburn to work as a county attorney, in the Kansas Legislature and in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
“His career was built on service to others, to the country and to the world,” Farley said.
Farley said many students on campus this year weren’t born until after Dole earned the 1996 presidential nomination, but this generation of students ought to be inspired by Dole’s military service in World War II, legislative work in Topeka and Washington, D.C., and dedication to civil society after leaving politics.
Dedication of the statute was attended by two other former U.S. senators -- Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a Kansan who served with Dole, and Elizabeth Dole, the honoree’s wife and one-time North Carolina senator. The artwork was a gift from John Pinegar and the family of Doug and Kathleen Smith. The artist is John Lajba, of Omaha, Neb.
Steve Morris, former president of the Kansas Senate, said before the ceremony he recalled that when he was a young teenager, Dole visited his Stevens County home several times during a campaign for the U.S. House.
“He’s an icon,” Morris said. “He certainly had a major impact on me when I was growing up. When I first ran for the Kansas Senate, he did radio ads for me.”
Burdett Loomis, a retired University of Kansas political science professor, said Dole proved he was skilled in the art of making bipartisan deals to move legislation through Congress. The ability to reach across the partisan divide stands as Dole’s greatest legacy, Loomis said.
“At the same time, Dole has always been a fierce partisan,” Loomis said. “Those two elements of his political personality coexisted over the course of his career.”