On January 4, 1999, Elizabeth Dole resigned from her position as head of the world's largest humanitarian relief agency, immediately signaling her sights were focused on something even more challenging in Washington.
"The Red Cross is now as solid as rock and I believe there may be another way for me to serve our country," she told a room full of tearful employees and volunteers as she stepped down. "The Red Cross has been a glorious mission field."
She became president of the American Red Cross in 1991. The organization's first female president since founder Clara Barton, Dole oversaw a budget of $2.1 billion, 32,000 employees, and 1.4 million volunteers. Hired amid a scandal over possible HIV-contamination of the blood supply, she promptly revamped the agency's blood bank procedures. She also solved its budget crisis, raising $3.6 billion for the agency along the way. And stressing the importance of volunteerism, she passed up the first year of her $200,000 salary.
After only months at the helm, as she was flying home from Kuwait, Dole realized, "I had found a job that filled me with a sense of mission like I had never known."
"I've stood by your side in Florida as we braced for Hurricane Andrew," she reminded her Red Cross employees in her resignation speech. "I've cradled a gaunt Rwandan baby in my arms. And I've sat with our men and women in uniform, far from home and loved ones, as they keep the peace in Bosnia.
"I have seen things that will haunt me the rest of my life," she said. "But in this position, I've been able to make a difference for people with dire human needs. This has been more than a job to me."
Putting first things first
Mary Elizabeth Hanford was born July 29, 1936, in the idyllic town of Salisbury, North Carolina, the only daughter of a wealthy flower wholesaler. She describes growing up in a beautiful and loving Southern home in which "the Gospel was as much a part of our lives as fried chicken and azaleas in the spring."
At 98, Elizabeth Dole's mother still enjoys telling stories about her daughter's childhood.
One of her favorites occurred when Elizabeth was about 10 years old. For a time, Elizabeth's father owned a drugstore at which he opened a charge account for his daughter. You can purchase anything you like, he explained to her, but once you reach your monthly credit limit, you can't make any additional purchases that month.
One evening, as her father was recording the store receipts, he noticed that while Elizabeth never went over her credit limit, she purchased an extraordinary amount of comic books. He confronted her about it.
"Why are you spending so much on comic books?" he sternly asked. The truth came out. Each time she went into the drugstore, she'd bring five or six friends along and let them pick out comic books, too, charging it to her account.
That's the type of person Elizabeth has been all through her life, her mother says. She's very considerate and generous.
"My grandmother, Mom Cathey, was my role model," Dole contends. "Mom Cathey was a continuous reader of the Bible. And next to her bed was a radio that was always tuned to religious broadcasts.
"I remember many Sunday afternoons where I sat with my cousin Anita Cathey and other children in my grandmother's living room, munching on cookies and drinking lemonade as she told us stories from Scripture."
With Mom Cathey, God always came first, she recalls. She lived a life of selfless spirituality. "And I wanted to be just like her."
Mom Cathey sowed other seeds in her granddaughter's life. When her son was killed by a drunk driver, there was a considerable amount of money in the life insurance policy. Every cent of that went to build a hospital wing on a church mission in Pakistan. In fact, whatever money Mom Cathey could make available?and she wasn't wealthy?went to missions abroad and ministers at home.
In an interview with Christian Reader Woman six years ago, Elizabeth Dole elaborated on Mom Cathey's lasting legacy. "My grandmother taught me that what we do on our own matters little?what counts is what God chooses to do through us. She stressed the importance of ministering to others and Jesus' instruction to his followers to 'Feed my sheep.' Public service is a part of that."
She had every intention of living out her grandmother's advice. "But as we move along," Dole laments, "how often in our busy lives, something becomes a barrier to total commitment of one's life to the Lord. It may be money, power, or prestige. In my case, my career became of paramount importance."
On a fast track
Ingrained with a strong work ethic, Dole excelled at just about everything she attempted, including a political science degree from Duke University, a master's degree in education from Harvard (at one time she considered becoming a Christian education director), and a degree from Harvard Law School, where she was one of just 24 women in a class of 550.
Her public service career began as deputy assistant for President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Consumer Interests. When Richard Nixon was elected president, she was promoted to deputy director. A few years later, she was appointed to the Federal Trade Commission.
But in 1982, while serving as head of the White House Office of Public Liaison under President Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Dole's ambitions came to a soul-searching halt.
She found herself consumed by work and a form of perfectionism. "My career had become the center of my life. And that was not the way my wonderful grandmother had taught me to set priorities. Sunday had become just another day of the week. And my life was close to spiritual starvation.
"But I knew that Jesus was my Lord and my Savior," she confirms. "And I knew it was time to cease living life backwards, time to strive to put Christ first?with no competition?at the very center of my life. It was time to submit my resignation as master of my own little universe." She smiles when she says, "God accepted my resignation."
At Washington's Foundry Metho-dist Church, Dole met a pastor who urged her to join a spiritual growth group that met on Monday nights not far from the White House. It was there, she says, "I came face to face with a compulsion to do things right and the companion drive to constantly please. Gradually, I began to redefine perfectionism the way my grandmother had taught it."
Applying that definition to her life meant an about-face. "Some people define strength as independence, self-reliance, and resourcefulness," Dole explains. "But I've learned that real strength, inner strength, comes from a dependence on the one Source who can replenish life with the power that comes from above."
Part of that replenishment comes from setting aside Sunday for spiritual and personal rejuvenation. For both Elizabeth and her husband Bob, it's a day for church and relaxing with friends or family.
"Life is more than a few years spent on self-indulgence or career advancement," she offers. "It's a privilege, a responsibility, a stewardship to be met according to God's calling. This alone gives true meaning to life."
Her priorities restored to proper order, and a more balanced lifestyle in place, Elizabeth Dole accepted President Reagan's invitation in 1983 to serve as Secretary of Transportation, the first female to do so. She led the crusade to raise the drinking age to 21, directed the overhaul of the aviation safety inspection system, and imposed tougher aviation security measures at U.S. airports, which led to tightened security measures around the world.
In the automobile industry she proposed safety initiatives that included requiring air bags and automatic safety belts in new cars, as well as the recommendation for an added safety feature: brake lights at a driver's eye-level, affectionately known as "dole lights."
In 1988, President George Bush appointed her Secretary of Labor. After serving in the administrations of five presidents since 1965 (being the only woman to hold two different Cabinet posts under two presidents), Elizabeth Dole decided to pursue a non-governmental position in 1991. She landed the job at the American Red Cross.
Nevertheless, Dole didn't hesitate to take a 14-month leave of absence from the Red Cross when her husband announced his 1996 bid for the presidency. She promised to return immediately after the election?whether Bob lost or won.
This was the third time she put her career on hold to campaign for her husband?not as a political partner, but as his wife.
"My husband and I have two very separate careers," Dole insists.
Pursuing dual careers has been somewhat easier without the demands of children, although she says on the speaking circuit that "the most important career a woman can have is being a mother."
Bearing her own children never happened. "I was almost 40 when we got married in 1975, so it [having children] was not so likely to happen," she says. "If it had, terrific. But since not, we both feel very challenged and blessed with the kinds of opportunities we've had to make a difference to a lot of children."
She adds: "I'm lucky to have Robin [Bob's 42-year-old daughter from his first marriage], who is much more than a stepdaughter, and a pair of nephews close enough to be like sons. John [Hanford], a young minister, works in the Senate on issues of international religious liberty, and Jody [Hanford] works for Campus Crusade for Christ."
"Bob and I are both believers," she says. They now attend Washington's National Presbyterian Church.
Not all glitz and glamour
The Doles' personal lifestyle is not nearly as glamorous as the public might imagine. They say they've been meaning to buy a house since the day they got married, but they've just never had time. So they continue to live in an apartment at the Watergate complex where the senator lived before they were married.
They frequently stay home with Chinese takeout and a rented video rather than attend another Washington social event. They both exercise on a treadmill, shop at the local Safeway, and divide the household chores.
One year, Elizabeth was reading in her devotions the passage in Luke where Christ said to entertain those who cannot entertain you (Luke 14:12-14). It triggered an idea.
It was two weeks before Bob's birthday. Why not have a reverse birthday party? she thought.
She contacted Sarah's Circle, a church-sponsored organization that houses street people in the inner city of Washington, to book the space. Working with the staff from Sarah's Circle, the Doles found out what each street person most wanted. In honor of Bob's birthday, the couple feted the street people, with gifts, a big cake, balloons, and entertainment.
"I shared my faith and talked about the importance of having Jesus Christ in your life, how he is able to help you in the midst of adversity. Many of these people have become Christians and share their story with others in similar situations."
The Doles consider this kind of "giving" party much more rewarding and fun than a "receiving" party, prompting them to do it a couple of times. "This is one way Bob and I have found to make Scripture come alive for us."
Dole's spiritual journey has taught her the value of putting first things first. "When God is the center of your life, everything else flows from that," she says.
No matter where she winds up in this next phase of life, she'll approach it with priorities in place. Mom Cathey's lessons have sunk in.
A Christian Reader original article.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
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