Dole, right, with surgeon Hampar Kelikian in 1969. Kelikian, who emigrated from Armenia, helped repair some damage from Dole’s World War II wounds, and the two formed a deep friendship. (Dole Archives)
They came by the dozens: The Armenian archbishops and the noted philanthropists, the esteemed physicians and the tireless nurses — they all poured into a Chicago funeral home to say goodbye to a doctor named Hampar Kelikian. But it was a tall Kansan, seated unobtrusively among the mourners, who caught the eye of Kelikian’s daughter, Alice. Bob Dole was sobbing.
By that moment in 1983, Dole was a famous man, a senator for 14 years, a vice presidential candidate on a national Republican ticket, a serious presidential contender. It’s easy to imagine that none of that would have happened without the pioneering surgeon Dole still calls Dr. K.
Dr. K did more than try to mend the broken parts of Dole’s body when the future Senate majority leader returned from World War II, a decorated battleground hero who’d been strafed by German bullets in Italy. Over the course of a remarkable three-and-a-half-decade friendship, Kelikian became a guiding light, a “second father” as Dole puts it, an inspiration and a teacher. “You have to live with what you have left,” Kelikian told Dole. “You can’t dwell on what you’ve lost.”
“Pretty good advice,” Dole, now 97 and undergoing immunotherapy for Stage 4 lung cancer, told me in a recent interview at his apartment in Washington’s Watergate complex.
During Dole’s frequent stays at Kelikian’s home in Chicago, the doctor shared his tragic family history amid the horrors that began in 1915 when the Turkish Ottoman Empire undertook a years-long campaign of ethnic cleansing that left more than 1 million Armenians dead. Dole learned that three of Kelikian’s sisters had been burned to death during the genocidal rampage, and Kelikian had been forced to leave his homeland.
Those recollections were prominent in Dole’s mind as he set on a quest years later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to force the United States government to officially acknowledge what so many historians consider indisputable: that a genocide had taken place. While he was in office, Dole was never able to achieve that goal, blocked by Senate colleagues and a White House loathe to anger Turkey, which continues to deny that there was a genocide.
But Dole had planted a seed. And so it was with a quiet joy that he recently got the news that President Biden — a Democrat and foe on many things, but an ally in the Armenian-genocide debate while they served together in the Senate — had accomplished what Dole waited so long to see: Biden formally recognized the mass killings of Armenians as a genocide, making him the first U.S. president to acknowledge this reality since Ronald Reagan, who’d used the term fleetingly. Biden’s announcement came on a day of great significance: April 24, the same date historians have pegged as the start of the genocide.
“Dole was the unparalleled champion,” Peter Mirijanian, an Armenian American political and business consultant in Washington, told me. “It would have been much more difficult to get recognition of the genocide without him. He kept it alive.”
Dole’s grounding in the genocide began in 1947 when an uncle suggested he travel from Kansas to Chicago to see Kelikian, an innovative orthopedist who had offered to treat him and other veterans for free — in gratitude to a country that had given him a new life, and to honor the doctor’s brother who had been killed fighting for the United States in Italy during World War II. Dole, then 23, remembers arriving to find Kelikian waiting to greet him. Kelikian had achieved prominence after emigrating at age 21 and earning a medical degree at the University of Chicago without having graduated from high school. Yet the doctor made him feel like he was the most important patient in the hospital, Dole told me.
Though he was more than 20 years Dole’s senior, Kelikian insisted on calling him “Captain,” a moniker he kept using as their relationship morphed from doctor-patient to the deepest of friendships. In their talks, Kelikian told Dole he would never become a doctor, which had been an aspiration, and he’d never shoot baskets. But still there was hope for something better.
Kelikian’s handwritten notes, provided to me by his daughter, lay out a medical long shot: “Surgery June 3, 1947. Arthroplasty of shoulder.” “Surgery August 12, 1947. Resection of humeral head.” The surgeries, which removed and sought to repair damaged parts of Dole’s right shoulder, were just the first of seven. The procedures couldn’t fix him completely, but they did allow his mostly immobilized right arm to hang in a somewhat normal position at his side. Dole eventually learned that he could grip a pen in his right fingers, a technique he used to mask the fact that he couldn’t uncurl them.
Kelikian became Dole’s guide to the world of Armenian Americans. Dole remembers telling Kelikian that thanks to the doctor, he had “met every Armenian in the country.” Many of those Armenians would become staunch Dole supporters, a political alliance that would resonate in 1990 when Dole waged a days-long legislative fight urging the Senate to pass a resolution proclaiming April 24 “a national day of remembrance for the victims of the Armenian genocide.”
During the fierce debate, Dole made space in his office for Van Krikorian and Rouben Adalian, two Armenian American leaders who carted in boxes of books and documents to prep the senator on the finer historical points that were coming up in the chamber. Dole kept them up late at night, mapping out strategy and studying the history, Krikorian told me.
Ultimately they could not overcome the hardball tactics of Robert Byrd, the Democratic senator from West Virginia; he sided with Pentagon and State Department officials who did not want to alienate Turkey and whose influence over federal spending allotments allowed him to play hardball with fence-sitting senators. “Dole was really upset with Senator Byrd,” Alice Kelikian says.
Afterward, Dole issued a statement calling the Senate’s refusal “a mockery of those who died, an insult to those who survived, and a repudiation of the sorrow of their families who live with us today.” He continued, “It is all those things, when we refuse to speak the truth; when we turn our backs on history; when we bury our heads in the sand.”
He delivered his scathing assessment on April 24, 1990. Thirty-one years passed before Biden echoed those words. Even more time — 74 years — had passed since that summer when a wounded soldier met the doctor who changed his life and handed him a cause that became whittled into his soul. “It’s been a long time coming,” Dole said after Biden’s announcement. The unimaginable was made real. Bob Dole lived to see it.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer.