PINELLAS PARK — A steady breeze kept a huge flag flapping Wednesday evening in front of the C.W. Bill Young Armed Forces Reserve Center, albeit at half-staff for the man inside.
The visitation for Rep. Young, who died last week, drew hundreds of people. Some were elected officials or comrades in politics; others were common men and women who had been touched in one way or another by Young.
Some older mourners shuffled or leaned on walkers. Others still wore their work clothes. A line formed under a tent outside.
One visitor pushed himself in a wheelchair with the only limb he's got left.
Marine Sgt. Michael Nicholson of Tampa had been on foot patrol in Afghanistan's Helmand province in July 2011. He came in contact with an improvised explosive device, causing him to lose both legs and his left arm. Over the next two years, as he underwent at least 23 surgeries, Nicholson was visited by Young multiple times.
"Everything I needed, paperwork-wise, he made sure it happened," said Nicholson, 24.
While numerous members of Congress are expected at today's funeral service, local and state politicians including St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, former Mayor Rick Baker, state agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam and state Rep. Darryl Rouson paid their respects to Young, whose body lay in a flag-draped casket inside the cavernous building that bears his name.
University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft came to honor a man she called an icon for USF, who secured the funding for its C.W. Bill Young Hall, which houses the school's Joint Military Leadership Center and ROTC programs.
"We're a top-level university because of Bill Young," Genshaft said.
Some made the rush-hour trek to Pinellas Park because Young seemed different from other politicians. Cassandra Jackson, 53, had never attended a memorial event for a politician before Wednesday.
An aide for special-needs children in Pinellas County schools, Jackson said she has changed her party affiliation twice in 35 years, from Democrat to Republican to independent.
"But he's unique," Jackson said. "He was able to cross party lines and get the job done."
One man said he had visited the congressman's house as a boy. John Bolender's mother ran a cleaning service in the early 1970s, and Young was a client.
Around 1990, Bolender and his mother were waiting for a table at a seafood restaurant when they ran into Young.
"He hasn't seen my mom in 20 years," said Bolender, 52. "And he actually remembered that my mom was Native American; that my dad was a Korean War veteran who had died from an injury as a firefighter; that she had five kids — I mean, his memory was amazing.
"When we went to go to our table, my mom said, 'There's a man that's real. That's the kind of person we need to be taking care of the politics. And she was a Democrat."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.