Alaska Rep. Don Young dies at 88

Remembering Don Young, Alaska's sole US House representative and longest-serving Congress member who died Friday.
Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 5:52 PM AKDT|Updated: Mar. 18, 2022 at 10:06 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Republican Congressman Don Young, Alaska’s lone representative in the U.S. House, has died. He was 88 years old.

Young died on Friday “while traveling home to Alaska” his office said via email.

The longest-serving member of Congress, Young had served as the representative for Alaska since 1973 when he won a special election held in the wake of the disappearance of incumbent Democrat Nick Begich. Begich won the 1972 election despite having disappeared in a plane crash weeks earlier, but was declared dead later that year.

Young won the March 1973 special election to fill Begich’s seat and continued serving ever since. He became Dean of the House in 2017 following the retirement of former Rep. John Conyers.

Young was in his 25th term in Congress.

According to an announcement from his office, Young’s wife Anne was by his side when he died. A former teacher, Young had a hand in several major developments in Alaska, from the Trans-Alaska pipeline to the Magnuson Stevens Act.

“Don Young’s legacy as a fighter for the state will live on, as will his fundamental goodness and his honor,” the statement from his office read in part. “We will miss him dearly. His family, his staff, and his many friends ask Alaskans for their prayers during this difficult time.”

Colleagues from Congress and politicians across Alaska expressed their condolences and remembered Young on Friday. Gov. Mike Dunleavy called him “a great friend” and colleague of many years. Dunleavy thanked Young for helping form Alaska into the state it is today.

In a later press release, Dunleavy said that “Alaska is a better place because of Don Young,” and said he and First Lady Rose Dunleavy offer their prayers to Young’s family.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Congress is mourning the loss of “a dedicated patriot and public servant.” In a prepared statement, Pelosi quoted words that Young spoke when he became Dean of the House in 2017:

“I love this body. I believe in this body. My heart is in the House,” Pelosi quoted of Young.

“Indeed, his reverence and devotion to the House shone through in everything that he did,” said Pelosi, who was sworn in by Young when she became Speaker of the House in 2019 and 2021. “For five decades, he was an institution in the hallowed halls of Congress: a serious legislator always bringing people together to do the People’s work.”

Former Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said on social media it’s “almost impossible” to imagine Alaska without Young.

“Today, Alaska lost a legend, and I lost a friend,” Walker wrote on Twitter. “Some losses are so immense that it’s hard to find words to express what someone meant to the place they lived and the people they loved.”

“What I admired most about Don is that he remained a genuine person through all his years in Washington,” he continued.

Alaska’s two U.S. senators, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, called Young a friend.

Murkowski she was “saddened beyond belief” by his loss.

“We have lost a giant who we loved dearly and who held Alaska in his heart — always,” she said in a statement. “Don was coming home to the place that he loved, and to the people that loved him best. We love you, Don.”

Murkowski said in an interview Friday that she got a phone call from her husband letting her know Young has died.

“It took the breath completely out of me,” she said. “... Don Young is a — he’s always been a living legend. Larger than life, more energy than anybody else could ever keep up with.”

Murkowski said this loss is deeply personal to her, as it is, she said, for many Alaskans.

“Everything he did was for Alaska,” she said. “... He was all things Alaska, but there was no phoniness to him, no pretensions. Everything he did was to benefit his state and the people that he loved. That’s why, as quirky as he may have been at times, nobody ever questioned his motivation because he lived his love for his state every single day in everything that he did.”

Sullivan said in a statement that he was “shocked and devastated” by the news.

“His spirit — authentic, tenacious, indomitable, a man of the people — epitomized our great state to such a degree that there was a sense he’d always be with us, that he’d live forever,” Sullivan said. “He was a dear friend and mentor, and I have learned so much from this great Alaskan.”

Speaking by phone Friday, Sullivan said he had talked to Young just a few days ago, and that he had been “so strong, so mentally with it.”

“I think to so many people, Don Young and his spirit really epitomized Alaska,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan spoke of how close he and Murkowski were to Young, describing Alaska’s delegation as “small but mighty.”

“One of the good things about it is we work so closely together,” he said. “And he was a dear friend of mine.”

Dunleavy will order Alaska state flags to be flown at half-staff, and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has ordered that municipality flags be flown at half-staff “at a date to be determined in the future” in honor of Young.

“As a personal friend, Don and I shared similar passions to include the love of the outdoors, hunting, and finding ways to help out our fellow Alaskans,” Bronson said in a prepared statement. “Our prayers go out to his family and especially his wife Anne.”

Young is survived by his wife, Anne, and two daughters, Dawn and Joni. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Lu Young, who died in 2009.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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