Wineka: Dole, Spencer spring for field trip

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 27, 2011

By Mark Wineka
DAN NICHOLAS PARK — Here’s one of those stories you probably haven’t heard about, but should.
It involves friends and kids, so it’s a good one.
Former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole has gained her share of notoriety through the years. How could she avoid it, as she became the first woman U.S. senator in North Carolina history, held two U.S. cabinet positions, headed the American Red Cross, tirelessly campaigned in her husband’s 1996 presidential bid and briefly tried running for president herself?
But things she and Bob Dole do more quietly often have left the biggest impressions.
On Thursday, Elizabeth Dole and lifelong friend Betty Dan Spencer collaborated in treating Hanford Dole Elementary School to an all-day field trip at Dan Nicholas Park.
It made perfect sense. The school named for Dole would be going to the park created by and named for Spencer’s father, Dan Nicholas.
All week, students at the school learned about the women who made this unusual field trip possible. Yes, students make field trips, but usually it’s a grade level or one class — not an entire school.
Roughly 480 students and more than 70 teachers and assistant teachers loaded up on buses Thursday morning and arrived at the park just after 9 a.m. At first, it seemed as though Dole and Spencer would try to hug every child as they walked toward the first shelter.
“I’m a hugger,” Dole explained earlier. “I think most North Carolinians are.”
Soon the kids were giving the women group hugs and telling them thank you for the special day.
“She made the park,” one student told her friend after they met Spencer.
“That’s close enough for first grade,” Principal Shanda McFarland said, overhearing.
Over the next five hours, Dole tried to meet every class as the students enjoyed what the expansive county park has to offer. Dole and Spencer soaked in all the feedback from the students, whom Dole described with words such as “warmth,” “gracious,” “respectful” and “sweet.”
For many of the children, it was their first visit to the park.
“It’s wonderful,” reading assistant Susie McIntyre said. “They’ve never had anything like this before.”
In the small-world department, McIntyre’s mother, Cora Sue Loflin Bame, went to school with Dole and Spencer.
Throughout the day, the Hanford Dole kids kept running up to Dole to say thank you. She couldn’t pass a group without seeing a few of the children holding out their arms, so she could walk into their embraces.
Odet, a first-grader, wanted to give Dole the shiny piece of gold she had uncovered at the park’s gem mine. Other students also fished into their bags and held out their most prized rocks for her to have.
Melissa Pierce handed Dole a notebook full of thank-you notes her second-grade class already had written. Dawn Gilland’s second-graders posed around the senator for a group picture.
“A very, very nice day,” Gilland said. “We appreciate the opportunity of being here.”
A little boy walked up to Dole and handed her a bottle of water, refreshment against the 90-degree day. “I told you it wasn’t going to rain on our parade,” Spencer told Dole at lunch.
Dole seemed to be touched by all these blessings, big and small.
Spencer and Dole have known each other since kindergarten in Salisbury.
They were in the Junior Book Club together, and the always ambitious Dole remembers appointing herself president. Even as young as the girls were then, they invited guest speakers to the club and took minutes of the meetings.
Spencer, who is working on the 100th anniversary celebration for Rowan Public Library, recently came across a document showing that Dole read 50 books in the summer of 1943.
As girls, Dole and Spencer performed in piano recitals together. Dole can still tell you the title of the song they played. They also labored together through typing and shorthand.
The women were part of the celebrated class of 1954 at Boyden High School and, as their lives took divergent paths, they stayed in touch, with Salisbury often the common meeting ground.
“I’m so happy to be with my best friend,” Dole said.
The all-day field trip for Hanford Dole School grew out of a Salisbury dinner the women had earlier this spring. Earlier that day, Dole had visited the school, and she told Spencer how wonderful the children were and wished she could get to know them better.
Soon the idea surfaced for a field trip and, in typical fashion, Spencer said, “Great, let’s do it.” In the next breath, she mentioned they better move fast to arrange things before the school year was over.
“So here we are,” Dole said. Later, she turned to Spencer and said in amazement, “You were so fast to pick up on this.”
Spencer credited Phyllis Cornelison of the park staff and Principal McFarland for taking care of most of the details. Dole and Spencer shared in whatever costs were involved — things such as lunches, miniature golf, the gem mine, train and carousel rides.
“This just came together so beautifully,” Dole said.
Before the grades split up and went to different areas of the park, the whole school gathered at the large Company Picnic Shelter, where Dole asked the children to work hard, go the extra mile, become involved in their community and know that God has a great plan for all of them.
Dole said she knew the students with her Thursday would become business owners, lawyers, doctors, teachers and leaders.
Park staffer David Lore then introduced the Hanford Dole students to another special guest — an American alligator. Mike Lambert walked up and down the shelter aisles with a large rat snake wrapped around his neck.
“This guy does not have a name,” Lambert said. “Today, I think we’ll call him ‘Hanford.’”
Bob Pendergrass then impressed the students with an up-close look at a red-tailed hawk.
The rest of the day was full of love.
Sarah Stepp’s kindergarten class, directed by teaching assistant Gloria Alexander, gave a special singing performance of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Dole and Spencer gave the children a standing ovation.
The women rode the park’s train. In the depot gift shop, Dole sifted through the stuffed animals, looking for play toys for her dogs back in Washington, Leader and Blazer.
Dole rode the carousel with Jacob Pitts, a special needs fifth-grader.
At the gem mine, she watched first-grader Kendall McKenna and third-grader Patricia Miles sifting through the sluice for precious rocks. She laughed at all the nose and hand smudges on the plexiglass looking into the black bear habitat.
Outside the miniature golf course, the second-graders from Michelle Byers’ class gathered around her bench and asked her for autographs. Dole grabbed a pen and wrote her name 19 times on a piece of paper so each student would have her signature.
It was a bit emotional when Dole stood at the edge of the parking lot and waved goodbye to the line of buses going back to the school at the end of the day. Sometimes, little hands waving above the open windows was all she could see because of the tinted windows.
“I enjoyed coming here,” third-grader Zahria Bickley said before leaving the park, “and I think she (Dole) made a good school.”
“And a good park,” classmate Ava Stapf added.
“Miss Betty made the park,” Bickley corrected.
Close enough for kids — and friends.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@