Nelson, sister of Bob Dole.
Interviewed May 1, 1996
FL: What were the difficulties of the Depression, your specific memories, and
how they might have influenced your brother....
I just remember that we didn't have a lot of money and that we didn't get to do
a lot. The movies we sort of sacrificed. That was big for us to go to the
movies and we had to kind of cut down and go less. Unless we made a little
extra money babysitting. I used to babysit for 10 cents an hour and do their
ironing and wash the dishes and put the kids to bed. Imagine, 10 cents an
hour. But if I could go home with 80 cents that was 8 movies and that's the
way we looked at it. But that was just one example. The folks, we could hear
them talking. We could always hear them talking about how tough it was and if
they could keep this payment and that payment and keep everything going, and
they cut down on the groceries and then father was in business, he had eggs, he
would go up to the grocery man up the street. And they'd work out a deal where
my Dad could trade some groceries, milk, some of the necessary things for some
of the eggs for Mr. Holzer the grocer. And they switched that way. The same
way with the drugstore there. There was a man in there my folks' age that
they played bridge with and they would work it if we had to have medicine or
anything of that nature, cosmetics and my mother had to have soap and a little
makeup and all that, and Dad would trade that for chickens and eggs and that's
the way they got along. A lot of people did that.
And Dad had a book when he passed away that had a lot of people that didn't
pay him. Still owed him, car people there, and car repair and I don't know if
we had any insurance in those days. In fact I'm just positive we didn't
because there wasn't the money in those days. But my Dad fried a lot of
potatoes, we ate a lot of pancakes, a lot of scrambled eggs, cause he had eggs
at the store you see, probably a lot of chicken, noodles, things like that.
One of our special things was maybe on Sunday we could make ice cream. And
have people over or go out to the grandparents. My grandmother, I remember her
homemade bread. She makes these great big loaves of, we're talking today about
the good homemade bread and the smell of it, that was all we needed. If they'd
of let us we'd just eat bread. Her homemade butter, they churned butter in
those days. You see my father could get the cream and you had the sour cream
and you'd churn butter. That was [the] fun thing. Bob used to like to do that, churn
that, watch that go into butter. That was one of the fun things that we did.
But it was tough. I know my folks were even worried about losing the home for
a while there. But they weren't alone. People worked together. They trusted
each other. I think my Dad was still paying for Kenny's hospital bill. He had
osteomalitis and had to be sent to Hayes which was 27 miles away. And he
would keep right on that for years and years and years. I think probably
started out at something like $20 a month and finally got the bill paid. And
those things, that's the way it had to be. Just didn't splurge. You couldn't.
FL: Can you talk about how those difficulties affected your brother.....
I think the Depression had a lot to do with our worries about money and
learning how to try and scrimp and save you know. But I think it affected Bob
most, 'cause he seemed to take Kenny by the hand, lead him across the road and
sort of took him under his wing and I think to this day he still does this. He
just has that feeling that he's the one.
FL: Other memories.....what about the landscape...how unpredictable nature could
be at that time?
The dust storms, when they would hit, I remember one time when I was over to a
girlfriend's house and my folks were worried cause there was no way I could
walk home and telephones were busy, busy, busy. And the dust was like, you
couldn't see the lights on the street. They always turned the street lights
on. And the bathtub would be just dust. And my mother would put wet towels in
the windows and doorways. But she would be very worried. It just come up like
a tornado did, just came up all of a sudden, and we had no way to get from here
to there. The only thing as a little kid I remember that we might get out of
school for a day or two. But it was serious and it was serious to my father
because he was working with farmers. And if the farmers didn't get any wheat,
he didn't have any business selling the cream and the eggs. And of course your
cows, where all the milk and the cream comes from that was another factor, and
the chickens and egg business. So it definitely made a tough time for
everybody on Main Street. And that's the impression, even though we were
little it was brought up in our home. We could see the, right before our eyes
it was there. It was obvious that it was going to be tough. It was just
pulled the wheat crop right out of the ground, the dust. You'd see a few
little pieces of green and the rest would be just dust, piled on top of more
dust. It was real serious, very serious and we knew this. But luckily we
didn't have any accidents that I remember in our home or anything, just kept
the dirt scooped out.
FL: Tell me a little bit, with details, about how your house was organized.
Your mother was a perfectionist?
My mother, I would have to say, was a perfectionist. The dirt just couldn't be
there, that was all. And on Saturdays, my job used to be to clean out the
cupboards. I don't mean, I clean my cupboards now like every two months or
maybe longer. It was every week, we had to straighten out every cupboard and
do it right. And then the refrigerator. And I can remember that. Taking
everything out and washing it out good and putting it all back. And when she
would scrub the floors, and I say scrub because she would get down there and
scrub on her hands and knees, and four kids got on chairs. Similar to these
high back chairs we're sitting on here today and we got out of the way and boy,
we couldn't get down. Of course my little brother Kenny would be ready to get
up when she gave the signal. But we had to stay up there until that pause.
Now we scrubbed and dried and waxed and dried and we would have to be sure we
didn't get on that floor. Then she'd go on out to the porch and did the
porches. Scrubbed them and waxed them. And she kept it just spic and span.
We were taught to, our clothes, we had ruffled dresses made out of material and
little ruffles clear up and down and we ironed every ruffle. And I think Bob
looks like that today. And I'm very particular. And we wouldn't think of
putting anything on unless it was perfectly ironed and clean and all. And I'm
not as perfectionist as she was, but that was just her nature. I think she
was raised that way back in the days when she grew up and all of her sisters
are that way. Go into any of their homes and you're almost afraid to use an
ashtray. But they enjoyed life. That was part of their life.
FL: What kind of influence to you think her work habits and perfectionism and
workaholism had on Bob?
I think he's like that also. Bob doesn't have an ordinary day of getting up and
going to work at ten. He's up bright and early in the morning and he works out
on his treadmill or whatever it is he does and walks and all of that. But he
goes to work early and he works late at night. And he always has. Back in the
days when he was in Russell, they said it was the only light on Main Street.
If the courthouse was lit up, he'd be up there working. And I think, I heard
him explaining to Elizabeth this time at the courthouse, he said, "This is a
little room where I used to work late at night." I heard him tell her that.
And I'm sure he did. That's the way he did in the campaign, that's the way he
FL: Tell me about Dawson's Drug Store.
That was the place in town. It was a popular place where everybody
went. And had little round tables, like the little drugstore tables, the old
type, and chairs and I always wished I had a set. We had one at one time and
sold it. But we sat around at the little round tables or we had booths, you
know. And it was just fun to go in there 'cause Bub and Chet would meet you at
the front door almost, with a hug or a remark or something or talk about the
sports or the happenings of the day with the harvest or whatever. And the
harvest people used to come by there in their trucks and they'd run out there
with Cokes, you know, trays, the old fashioned Coca-Cola trays, take them out
to the farmers and let them have their Coke when they were working. And they
looked forward to that because that was special. I don't even know if they
were paid, that just was a thing they did every harvest. Harvest was a big
thing, you see. But that drug store centered, they had to go by there to get.
And they would deliver Coke. Can you imagine. Bob used to get the job of
carrying Cokes down to the Cliff Hotel, an old, old hotel down there.
Different people would order a Coke and maybe ice cream and they used to pack
it in those days. Hand packed ice cream was special because you could get the
kind in the carton, but Dawson's carried that Franklin's hand packed ice cream.
Bob said it was work because you had to put it in and pack it down, put it in
and pack it down. And they didn't sell it unless it was pure packed, really
packed full. And that was something they did. And they'd deliver
prescriptions and everything else. But he got to do a lot of that.
But he was usually behind the counter making sodas and milkshakes, root beer
floats and other things that they talk about. He was given a root beer mug
from the old drug store and it was pretty nice to have. An old fashioned
FL: What did he learn at Dawson's Drug Store that helped him later in
I think Bob learned to pick up, he got over a lot of his shyness.
He learned at the drugstore how to cut up, maybe for the first time and be not
so serious and have fun and relax and remember to get his personality out a
little bit. These little one liners, I think that's a very good place that
they might have started because Chet Dawson was one of the owner's sons, and
Bub, were just chalk full of these jokes and little things. And I think Bob
got to where he could handle this and pick up on this. And not to say that my
father wasn't the same way, so Bob already had it in his system. And Kenny did
too. But that's where he learned a lot. He also learned a lot about people
having struggles and tough times ahead. There were people with illnesses and
the Dawsons would carry them. You know what carry them means. They'd let them
take it and pay when they could pay it. Little or whatever they could handle.
And that was something he learned. He learned a lot about sports. Of course
K. State and K. U., the Dawson boys were started that quite young, to him, he
was younger, so he learned about being competitive in sports. And that's I
suppose why he went into all of those things too. Because he started at the
drug store when he was about in the eighth grade. And he was all State
football, track and basketball. And I think that got him into that which was
good. Being competitive was very good for him. And politics, no there was no
politics in this. This was just our hometown, homespun, good old living.
Getting along with people. I think that's the big thing he learned. Being
around people and enjoying people.
FL: Describe briefly the personalities in your family. You got into trouble but
Bob was the goody-goody.
He and Norma. My Momma said after she saw me get into so many things and get
kind of slap, slap. I think it's just our nature. To this day we're different
personalities. I go out and laugh and cut up and she's more serious. Bob can
be very serious but he can also just say something and you just wait a little
bit and you get it and you just crack up. That's the way my father was. But
he wasn't always serious. I don't mean to sound like he was just nothing but a
serious person. He was funny. He could have a lot of fun. But he took
everything to heart. When we were supposed to do our jobs and things at home,
he did it, you know. Where we might slough off a little more Kenny and as I
said we were the black sheep probably. I was probably the leader. 'Cause I was
the oldest and he followed into that more than the other two. I know my
grandmother used to say, "Send Kenny out, and Gloria out with one of the
others. Don't send them out together." We'd go out there for a weekend.
Kenny'd take a stick and break the eggs on the farm. And that was not very
nice. And he'd do all kinds of little tricks like that. He'd get the
chickens run around 'cause he thought that was funny. Well, then they wouldn't
lay eggs, you see. Grandma would have to scold him. And things like that.
She had a couple of lambs and he'd chase them around, get on the bike. He was
just full of the dickens.
FL: With Bob you'd use the words, "he was the goody-goody."
Well, I don't know if he'd appreciate that, but I think so. You'd have to say
he was the good one. He'd say "You better not do that. You're going to get
into trouble." However he pulled a couple of things. He and Kenny took the
car one time. The neighbors car and they backed into a tree. He was in real
big trouble over that, I remember. And the folks were gone one time and he
also took our car. Kids are going to do those things. And the example of the
time down at the Aunt and Uncle's when they went for a little ride and they
wanted to try this wine. I don't know how much, but Kenny, he was right there.
The folks came home they were rolling down the hill having a good time. So they
did childlike things, they did kid things. They did a lot of that. We made
our own fun. I don't remember a lot about the swimming. We didn't have a
swimming pool in Russell for years. So I think we went out to the farm, our
Grandmother's place, and we had a place we could go swimming. But my mother
was so afraid of water and therefore none of us, she used to say we could go
swimming but don't go near the water. At least that's the way we joke about
it. We all overcame that of course.
FL: Who was in charge of the discipline?
I believe my mother was. She would maybe tell Dad something. But it took an
awful lot to get Dad to get us off to the side and punish us or anything. Mom
would do the little "go out and get the switch" bit. I'd go pick out the
smallest one I could find and that's the one that hurt the leg the most. And I
think there was probably a belt once in a while too, in those days. But I
think she would be the disciplinarian. My mother. But when you look back on
it now she meant well. What she did was for our own good.
FL: Would you describe your parents as openly affectionate or
They weren't demonstrative. I don't remember that I'd see them hug or
whatever. None of us were ever just really open people who walk up and hug.
Now some of the family come along like my Aunt Gladys and her sister and that
family and I think we all picked up on that. I don't know whether that was a
reserve from maybe Mom was more reserved. Dad might have been more of the
nature to just hug everybody cause he called all the kids Sis, all the girls
were Sis, and he was a little quiet but he was a wonderful man. And I think
Mom might have been just a little bit the type to not show her affection. But
it was there. We knew it, but it might have been from that side that we just
didn't. But the other side definitely showed it. Hug and love. And I always
hug Bob when I get around him. I always give him a hug. He kind of likes that
I think. Certainly he shows emotion toward Elizabeth. Did you see that one
FL: Do you remember the first time that you saw Bob after he returned from the
Yes. It wasn't easy cause he was pretty conscious of his condition. His arm
was up like this. Well, I don't know how he had his arm. This Adolf that's
going to talk to you made a some kind of a machine, or piece of, a gadget I'd
call it, to put his arm on. You know, a metal piece that come down his hand
and his fingers were here. He'd come to the table a lot of times to eat and
he'd spill. And he'd get upset and leave the table and go to his bedroom.
Pretty soon he'd come back but it was not easy, not easy. When you go away
like Bob was, 190 lb. man, sports, had all the use of both arms and legs, so
active and so healthy, come back in the shape he came back in. He's just lucky
he came back. That's why he's so lucky he came from Russell in the first place.
Little town. Plus with his handicap he drove right on through, just drive,
drive, drive. He has a lot of drive and determination. And I think the
determination is what's gotten Bob Dole where he is today. A guy who could
overcome this handicap. I don't think he even thinks of himself as a
handicap. I can say this. I've learned little things about his war injuries
that I didn't even know. I've learned things in the last year just hearing
them said. He's starting to bring it out. First he wouldn't talk about it. We
didn't push it. We didn't ask.
FL: Do you remember the exercises Bob had to do to get better? What was
We learned this as we went on. Seeing him walk maybe a few steps, then half a
block, then a block and then around the block. Step by step. And sometimes
he'd work out there. Mom was gone all day and she said he worked out there he
was just perspiring working on that pull thing, pull thing, pull thing. Then
he had a ball. Both arms he had to work with. And he just never gave up. He
just wanted to make sure he could overcome this thing somehow. That had a lot
to do with it. I can say this because I think in anybody, the doctors have
told me many times, I've had cancer twice in the last ten years and they said
"Attitude is a lot of it." And I would have to say that's what Bob had.
FL: They said he was working out in the garage and they came back one night and
they found him on the pulley.
Got hooked up on that some way. I don't remember that occasion. He got that
from Kenny. Kenny must have been here. I might not have been in on that one.
But I've heard the story also. I mean I don't know how in the world that
happened. Must be the pull, he couldn't get out was that the situation? I'm
sure he had several things like that happen because he went out there, Mom had
to run to the store or something, he was out there along. She was terrified the
one time when she came in, she felt he was working too hard, he just wouldn't
give up. Like when you're first starting to walk and your supposed to
exercise. Doctors will tell you to just go short distances or five minutes.
He was overworking it and overdoing it. And I think he just got kind of
himself, "I'm going to work hard and the harder I work the better I'll be." I
guess that was his attitude. But don't knock it. Somebody told my husband,
"Don't knock success." Apparently it was working.
FL: Do you ever remember him opening up to you during that period?
In that period he didn't say very much. He didn't have to, 'cause we could see
it in his eyes and in what he was doing. And we just gave him the respect and
let him be quiet and go along with. And some of the things I thought, "Is that
even going to be worthwhile to try?" You'd think that was a lot of work and
wonder if he was really going to get anything out of it. But we didn't let him
know this. We didn't let on. He was private about it. And I'm wondering if
that today isn't why he's still, why he is a private person. He's not a person
to just tell anything about it. And we just let it go at that.
FL: Did you get to know his first wife well?
Yes. Very nice person. We loved her and she loved my mother. And she visited
my mother after the divorce many times, and all of us. I still talk to her on
the telephone. She and Elizabeth are the best of friends and of course we get
Robin. And Robin is her daughter and Bob always manages to see that Robin gets
to see her mother when she gets anywhere near the area. He always arranges it,
time for them.
FL: Were you surprised that they got divorced?
Well, I don't really like to dwell on that divorce because that's over and done
and I feel like at the time it was a thing to do because she didn't like him
being gone, gone, gone, gone all the time and his hours, working like he did.
And she's the one that wanted the divorce and kept bringing it up and finally
he just said okay. And that's what happened. And that's been what? Twenty
something years ago? And they're good friends. And he was very good to her
mother even many years after the divorce. Her mother was just sick about it
too, cause she just thought the world and all of Bob Dole. And we all were,
but those things happen in life. I don't think it should be a mark of anything
against him or her because apparently they just didn't see. Many years later
she told my mother that she wondered if she maybe shouldn't have done it
differently. She was too hasty. And I think she was shocked when he said
okay. He'd just been hearing it and hearing it. When it's over, it's over. My
Dad used to say it's not over 'til it's over. But when things are over, they
are over...And that's sort of the way he felt about it. And it bothered my
mother, I know.
FL: Her version is quite different. Her view is that she describes it as Bob's
decision, not hers.
I know that. It's all right if that makes her comfortable, that's okay. It
doesn't matter to me that much or to... Should it matter to the press? Or
anyone else. But at the time that was the case. He wasn't going with anyone.
She married before Bob did, you know. And Bob just didn't have time for her.
It's a pretty hard life. You take some of these doctors, you wonder how they
manage to give their wives a little time. And that was hard. But he was very,
very close-- I know this isn't part of the question and you can cut it out if
you don't--to Robin. Was and is and always shall be. I know that.
FL: Have you ever had a conversation with Bob when you were young or teenagers
or even during the period he was struggling, about God or faith?
No. But we all knew that was part of our lives. We went to Sunday school and
church and Bob has followed that clear through his life. He even taught Sunday
school a while I think. His record's down at the church there in Russell. But
he talks about God and faith. That's part of his thinking I'm sure. We did
talk about that it was God's will if something happened to somebody, or it was
sort of that way when he'd root the team on when they were having troubles you
know. He never considered himself a star, he just considered himself that if
something was going wrong, he'd cheer everybody up or tried to. And always
said, "Whatever happens, only one can win. Can't everybody win. Both teams
can't win." And that was the way I think he showed it. Plus he was
competitive in high school in his grades and all that too.
I think he just felt like he had to take each day as it came. And certainly
after he came back and what happened to him, he'd have to have that attitude.
And I think that was probably part of his attitude. The God within him, you
know. You don't give up, you have faith in God. Be his will, I will get well.
But my work and my determination to go with it.
FL: Paint the scene for us with everybody assembled there in Russell when he
appeared there during the Ford/Dole '76 presidential campaign.....
He came back with President Ford and Elizabeth and Robin and my mother were all
sitting out there in the crowd. They had introduced him to make his speech like
anyone would and he looked out and saw all the faces--some of the same people
who had given him dimes, nickels, quarters, a few might have given him a
dollar, to his family rather send him away to get that surgery with Dr.
Kalikian. And he just couldn't take it. He just broke down. Home does that.
Bob has got a lot of people around here that backed him all these tough times,
especially when he came home in the shape he was in. He came back, he did
come back the worst shape of any of our injured people from the war. Just
looked out there and it just overcame him, that's all. And it was very, very
But it was real, and he didn't mean to do that, he didn't want to do that, but
it so just had to come out. He just remembered all those things. One by one
and people. Last time he was here he said something about looking and not
seeing the faces that some of the people he'd like to see. I know what he was
thinking. Kenny, his brother, and his friends that have gone before him and
his mother and his father and some people that were close. But that time they
were there and they were standing up, cheering and excited about what was about
to happen and it was more than he could handle. And I don't think it can hurt
a man's character when he gets to the point in his life when he just breaks
down. I think personally it shows there is some love and heart inside. And
there again, God comes out a little bit I think.