Elizabeth Dole speaks to students at Rowan Museum
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY – Jelly beans, sparkly dresses and an oversized gavel caught the attention of Hanford Dole Elementary students touring the Elizabeth Dole exhibit at the Rowan Museum.
But the students didn’t have to rely on museum staffers to explain some of the more unusual artifacts on display.
They went directly to the source – former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole herself, who is scheduled to meet every student attending her namesake over the course of two days at the museum.
“It is so exciting that the children can actually learn about the person the school is named for from Sen. Dole herself,” said Judy Grissom, superintendent for Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
When nearly 300 children in kindergarten through second grade toured the museum Monday, Dole spoke with 12 different groups in about three hours. At her request, the school divided the children into small sections so the interaction was more intimate.
Another 300 third through fifth graders are scheduled to visit today.
School and museum staff commended the way Dole, who turned 76 in July, related to the children and kept them engaged with stories about growing up in Salisbury.
“She needs to be a teacher,” Grissom said. “She did a great job.”
Dole has some experience in the classroom, earning a master of arts in teaching, including practice teaching, before going to law school.
She worked as a substitute teacher for one day, which was long enough, she said with a laugh.
Dole clearly enjoyed her encounters with the Hanford Dole students, greeting the children warmly and complimenting hairdos and good behavior.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told each group.
She hugged nearly every child, and some children ran up after the presentation to tell Dole, “I love you.”
Dole talked about what the children had seen in the exhibit, specifically the safety trifecta from her days as U.S. secretary of transportation: the seat belt, the airbag and the drinking age limit of 21.
More than 400,000 lives have been saved since the federal government increased the drinking age in 1984, she said.
Sometimes the students lightened otherwise serious subjects.
When Dole asked why she wanted to raise the drinking age to 21, one little girl spoke up.
“So they wouldn’t spill it in the car,” she said.
Dole seemed to thrive on the spontaneity of the discussions and encouraged the children to ask her questions on any topic.
Dole said she hoped to impart the values she learned in Salisbury – honesty, respect, hard work and most of all, caring for others.
She had an anecdote for each value, including a Valentine story that seemed to make an impact.
When Dole was a little girl, she stuck 13 valentines to the wall of her new room. Her father was upset and asked “Liddy” who did it.
First, Dole blamed her imaginary friend.
Next , she blamed her brother, 13 years her elder.
Finally, she admitted she had marred the wall.
John Hanford took a small switch from a bush and switched Liddy once for each valentine.
Years later, Dole said she asked her father if he’d been too harsh on the little girl who was trying to decorate her new room.
Hanford replied that he had punished her not for pasting the Valentines but for lying.”What a lesson,” she said. “I remember the details to this day.”
Museum staff and volunteers worked closely with school personnel to pull off the logistical challenge of shepherding 600 kids through the museum and an audience with Dole and back on the bus in a matter of hours.
“It has been beyond our expectations,” said Kaye Hirst, executive director for the museum.
All the preparations were worth it “for these students to meet their school’s namesake, live and in person, and spend time with her and see her life story as well,” Hirst said.
Hanford Dole Elementary is the only school in Rowan County named for a living person.
Teachers prepared as well, showing videos about Dole every morning and talking to students about her service as president of the American Red Cross, two cabinet posts and her term as a U.S. senator.
Dole encouraged the children to volunteer when they grow older.
The best way to solve your own problems is to help someone else with theirs, she said.
“Nothing will give you more joy than working on something you feel passionately about,” she told one group.
While the younger children did not ask about politics, Dole said she anticipates the older students, who may have watched the recent national conventions, to be more interested in the subject.
Dole said she and her husband, U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, have endorsed Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president.
“He is the kind of hands-on person with the business skills we need to really turn the economy around,” she said.
Dole was North Carolina’s first female senator and ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2000.
She said she expects to see a woman president during her lifetime.
While in Salisbury, Dole will travel to Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh to work on her latest effort, filling the service gap for military family caregivers.
The Elizabeth Dole exhibit will close for good at 4 p.m. Sunday. The Rowan Museum will close for two weeks and reopen Sept. 30 with the exhibit, “Where’s the Fire?”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.