My Turn, Karen South Jones: Sen. Dole was a kind, charming, intelligent man

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 7, 2021

By Karen South Jones

I first met Bob Dole in the summer of 1978.

I was between my junior and senior years at UNC-Greensboro and had begun the summer with an internship in the office of Congressman Bill Hefner. By the time that internship was nearing a close, I had developed a serious case of Potomac Fever and was desperately looking for a way to extend my time in the nation’s capital.

Knowing that Elizabeth Dole was from Salisbury, I decided to write her to see if there were any employment opportunities in her office at the Federal Trade Commission. It should be noted that this was an act of youthful optimism, as neither I nor my family had any personal, professional or political connections with Mrs. Dole. In what I would learn to be her trademark grace and generosity, Mrs. Dole invited me for a chat and, subsequently, offered me a job for the rest of the summer.

My introduction to Sen. Bob Dole came in the Senate Dining Room, where Mrs. Dole had taken her support staff for lunch. I remember Sen. Dole striding into the room, his trademark pen in hand, greeting and laughing with colleagues and strangers alike. The senator encouraged us to try the famous Senate Navy Bean Soup (I did not) and spent his time with us alternately telling stories and cracking jokes. By the end of the meal, I well understood why Mrs. Dole had fallen in love with this charming, witty and intelligent man. To tell the truth, I developed a bit of a crush on him, too.

The next time my path crossed with Sen. Dole’s was in 1981. I was working in the White House Speechwriters Office, a position I garnered thanks to the kindness of Mrs. Dole. When the congressman I was working for in 1980 lost his re-election bid, I again contacted Mrs. Dole. This time, she invited me to work with her on the Reagan-Bush Transition Team; from there, I moved to the White House and to what became the job of a lifetime. On Christmas Day, the phone rang at my mom’s house, where I was visiting for the holidays. When handed the phone, I was greeted by a booming voice saying, “Merry Christmas, Karen. This is Bob Dole.” After exchanging a few pleasantries, Sen. Dole asked if I wound be willing to escort Leader, the Dole’s beloved Schnauzer, back to Washington as they were headed to Florida.

Let me just tell you, even if it had been an inconvenience, there was no way I was telling Sen. Dole that I would not be a dog taxi! I mean, how often does one get called upon to assist one of the most influential members of the United States Senate and the head of the White House Office of Public Liaison? I have always remembered the kindness and appreciation the Doles extended to me when I picked up Leader a few days later. I would receive calls like this from Sen. or Mrs. Dole for the next couple of years and, always, I was happy to help. I will admit now, however, that my prayer before starting those drives back to D.C. went like this: “Lord, if I have a wreck, please take me and let this dog live!”

It’s hard for me to believe that my last encounters with Sen. Dole were in 1996, the year he was the Republican nominee for president. It may come as a shock to those aware of my current political beliefs to learn I was at that time a staunch Republican and unabashed Dole supporter. I was part of the planning team for the senator’s campaign visit to Salisbury and my most vivid memory of that exciting day occurred out of public view. My 8-year-old son had drawn a sign that said, “Just Vote Dole.” I managed to sneak it, and him, into the Green Room where the Doles and others were waiting to make their entrance. Sen. Dole leaned down to thank my son Brant, sign the poster and shake his hand. It was a gesture that meant the world to me and made me believe even more fervently that this excellent human being would be an excellent president. Later that year, I had the privilege of accompanying a young lady from Salisbury to the Republican National Convention, where she spoke at the First Ladies’ Luncheon. She and I were in the hall when Mrs. Dole spoke, and I will never forget the pride, humility and love in her husband’s eyes. They may have been Washington’s power couple, but they also were an example of what a powerful marriage looks like.

I don’t claim to have been a friend of Sen. Dole’s. I don’t even claim to have known him, really. But I know this: Bob Dole was a kind, decent human being who stooped to thank a child for a simple poster, who loved making people laugh, who was an exceptional servant leader, and who made this small-town girl feel special and appreciated. Seems to me that’s a pretty good legacy.

Rest in peace, Senator Dole.

Karen South Jones is the executive director of Rowan County Youth Services Bureau. She lived and worked in Washington, D.C., from 1979 to 1990.