Lu Young, Rep. Don Young's wife of more than four decades, died overnight Saturday, according to his press secretary.
Friends and colleagues said the pair had an extremely close relationship -- both personal and professional -- that began deep in Interior Alaska on the Yukon River where they still owned a home.
The 67-year-old Gwich'in Athabascan from Fort Yukon was a daily fixture at the Alaska Republican's Washington, D.C., office, where she worked with him and greeted guests.
She died -- apparently of natural causes -- after falling asleep at the couple's Great Falls, Va., home, but the specific cause of death remains unknown, according to the congressman's press secretary, Meredith Kenny.
The couple was married more than 46 years. When they met, Lu was a bookkeeper in Fort Yukon, according to Young's congressional biography.
Her death was a big shock, said Curtis Thayer, a former aide to Don Young.
"She was such a part of (Don)'s life, always at his side," Thayer said.
"Everyone should strive each and every day to love each other as much (as) Don and Lu loved one another," said Art Nelson, their son-in-law.
A tight bond
The congressman in the mid-1990s told a crowd assembled at an Alaska Federation of Natives conference that Lu was his buddy, his wife, his mistress and his lover.
"They had the classic love affair," said former Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch.
"No question, the two of them were devoted to each other for many, many years," said Wuerch, who knew the couple for decades.
"They were the closest couple I have ever seen," said Steve Hansen, a Young aide for 21 years. "Don on the campaign trail was always saying, 'Look, you get a two-for-one deal.' "
Those weren't empty words because Lu worked hard on Capitol Hill, Hansen said. "She would be going in and out of other congressional offices, saying 'Don needs this for Alaska,'" he said.
"She was a tough bird, too," said Hansen, explaining that Lu wasn't shy about letting other people know if they were failing her husband in some way.
Fort Yukon village chief Mike Peter said he was sorry to hear about her death, and the community will be grieving for the congressman's loss.
He said the couple was always friendly when they were in town -- usually during moose hunting season.
"I've known both of them since I was a kid," he said. "Everyone is pretty close here."
Gov. Sean Parnell ordered flags to be lowered to half staff for Lu on Tuesday.
"Lu and Rep. Young have been a team for decades," Parnell said in a news release. "Sandy and I have admired their bond of friendship in marriage and the years of volunteer service Lu put into his congressional office."
"She was a very gracious and giving individual," said Matthew Nicolai, chief executive of Calista Corp., a regional Native corporation with Yup'ik shareholders based in Anchorage.
He recalled that she was heavily involved in her husband's political career from its beginnings in the 1970s. "She was an ambassador on Native issues. Whenever Don needed help, she reached out and got information," Nicolai said.
In the summer of 2003, Don Young refuted rumors that he was leaving Congress because of Lu's health. He said she had experienced a "slight stroke" that winter.
"We're here as long as possible. I just want to let you know, the Youngs do not retire," he said during a press conference announcing his run for re-election. He has served in Congress since 1973.
Wuerch said there was never any question that Young would have given up his position to take care of Lu if she became ill.
In 2005, Young dubbed a $284 billion transportation bill that he steered -- the Safe Accountable Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users -- SAFETEA-LU. The bill was most famous for its inclusion of funds for Ketchikan's so-called "bridge to nowhere," linking the island to the city's airport on a nearby island.
She also has an Alaska road named after her: Lu Young Lane, off Point MacKenzie Road.
Thayer said the couple had been scheduled to return to Alaska in a few days.
In addition to the congressman, Lu Young's survivors include two daughters and 14 grandchildren. Information on funeral arrangements was not available Sunday night.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK
Alaska Dispatch Publishing