RUSSELL — The long lines of well-wishers were here again. So were the Dole for President T-shirts and the red, white and blue America's Choice campaign buttons.
This time, though, Bob Dole was back not to launch a presidential campaign, but to hang out for a couple of days in his hometown.
"It's still home," he said. "There's only one home, and that's wherever you grew up."
Dole's appearance here Friday and Saturday was a last-minute decision. Even his sister, Norma Jean Steele, who lives in Russell, didn't know her brother was on his way until Monday.
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Doctors cleared the way for Dole, now a month shy of his 88th birthday, to return to the town that shaped him and was the launching point for two of his three runs for the White House as well as his 1976 campaign for the vice presidency.
"He said, 'I want to go to Russell,'" Steele said. "'I want to see my family.'"
Dole spent much of the past couple of years convalescing following a fall in his Washington home and then a series of setbacks while in Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
He wound up spending nearly a year at Walter Reed. He entered the hospital for knee surgery, but stayed after he contracted pneumonia a couple of times and struggled with a slow-healing deep blood blister. He was released in November, but said Friday that he was still weaker than he would have liked.
"I'm getting stronger every day and walking better every day," Dole said.
Dole had been saying since he left the hospital that he was eager to return to Kansas.
"He's just very determined," said his wife, former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who made the trip with him. "He never complains."
On Friday and Saturday, Bob Dole rode in a parade atop a fire truck named for his father, spent two hours greeting a line of well-wishers at a hotel, then basked in spontaneous applause from diners as he entered Russell's well-known Meridy's Restaurant & Lounge just off Interstate 70.
On Friday, he took a tour of Russell that included a stop to see his second sister, Gloria Nelson, who is hospitalized. Seeing the 89-year-old Nelson, Dole said, was a prime motivator for the trip. Another was to appear in Russell's once-a-decade Prairieista festival.
He drove by the first house he ever bought, his first school, the cemetery where his parents and brother are buried, and the senior center. Dole had donated money to rehabilitate the building. He also drove by the roadside shelter he had donated $200,000 to build in memory of his brother, Kenny.
"Having Dole here is like icing on the cake," said Nancy Aspegren of Russell, who's known Dole since he served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1960s. "He has never, ever forgotten his roots the way so many politicians forget where they come from."
Dole and his wife were not the only big-name drawing cards. A third former senator, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, joined them. Like Bob Dole, Specter is a graduate of Russell High School.
Dole was wistful about his Senate days, saying that he misses his old job and being "in the eye of the storm."
Russell, he said, is a different town that he once knew because so many acquaintances have died. Given his own severe war injuries, Dole sounded surprised that he's still around.
"Turning 88 is probably more than I ever expected," he said.