When U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., accepted the challenge of raising private funds to build a World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1997, his colleague Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., asked the question perhaps many of his fellow senators were thinking.
“Why are you running around with a tin cup?” he asked. “Why don’t you come to Congress and we will appropriate the money?”
Dole detailed his response during testimony before Congress about the construction of the memorial: “Well, our view was that we ought to raise it in the private sector, and we ought to leave the money up here for veterans’ needs [and] present-day veterans who need help. …”
Dole ultimately succeeded in building a memorial to honor his fellow World War II veterans, raising over $200 million for the effort. Dedicated in 2004 by President George W. Bush, the memorial welcomes approximately five million people each year, many of them World War II veterans and their families.
Dole, who was best known as a long-serving Senate Republican leader and 1996 presidential nominee, passed away on Sunday December 5 at the age of 98. He left behind a long and remarkable legacy of service and accomplishment in the U.S. military, Congress and his philanthropic pursuits.
As a young service member, Dole served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Northern Italy as a second lieutenant, sustaining major injuries on April 14, 1945 while attempting to save a fellow soldier. The incident left him without the use of his right hand and arm for the rest of his life. Following his injury, Dole famously carried a pen in his right hand in part to discourage people from attempting to shake it.
Dole later said his wartime wounds helped him develop his sense of perseverance.
“In moments of self-pity, I saw myself going through life unmarried, selling pencils on street corners and living off a disability pension,” Dole once told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “(Dr. Hampar Kelikain) was frank to say that it would be up to me to make the most of what I had. There would be no miracles.”
The plainspoken Kansan overcame his injuries and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960, where he served for eight years before joining the Senate. There, he would become a towering figure for almost 30 years, serving as Majority Leader and setting a record as the nation’s longest serving Republican leader.
During that time, Dole built a reputation as a tough negotiator and pragmatic dealmaker with a razor-sharp wit and a willingness to work across the aisle. Three times, he ran for the highest office in the land, earning the Republican nomination in 1996.
What is lesser known than his political accomplishments, however, is Dole’s incredible body of work in philanthropy.
In addition to his service as national finance chairman for the World War II Memorial campaign, Dole established the Dole Foundation for Employment of People with Disabilities in 1984, which “offered companies and individuals with disabilities grants to help the disabled to become active, contributing members of society.” He also contributed to the founding of the American Association of People with Disabilities, and fought for the rights of the disabled in his legislative work.
On the education front, then-retired Sen. Dole teamed up with former presidential rival Bill Clinton to raise $100 million in scholarship funds for children and spouses who lost their loved ones during the 9/11 terror attacks.
He fought for the hungry, helping reform America’s food stamp program as a senator, then partnering with his former colleague Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., to establish the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which has provided meals for 40 million children in need.
Dole also worked side by side with his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, as a key advisor to the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which empowers and supports “the nation’s 5.5 million military caregivers; the spouses, parents, family members and friends who care for America’s wounded, ill or injured veterans.”
In his final years, one of Dole’s favorite activities was to welcome fellow World War II veterans to the memorial he helped build as an ambassador for the National Honor Flight Network. The network has provided trips to the memorial for approximately 250,000 veterans and their families since its dedication.
“Since 2006, visiting with Honor Flight veterans at the World War II Memorial has been a real highlight for me,” said Dole, who was named chairman of the organization’s Ambassadors program in Nov. 2020. “The entire experience greeting and thanking these American heroes is a heartwarming one.”
The feeling was mutual.
“He met most of them,” recalled Jeff Miller, co-founder of the National Honor Flight Network. “When they saw Senator Dole they would light up. He didn’t want some group picture with 200 veterans. He wanted to meet every single one of them to hear their story and exchange some stories with them. Bob Dole, he just epitomized that whole generation.”