WASHINGTON — It's 2006 and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young is about to set off on a four-hour drive to his hometown of Harmarville, Pa., where he is to be honored at the C.W. Bill Young Lock and Dam on the Allegheny River.
When the congressman, then 75, asks why I want to go along, I say I want to meet his relatives and see where he grew up.
"Oh," he says playfully, "you're writing my obituary."
I chuckle and claim other motives, but we both know he's right.
Today in Largo, thousands will turn out to remember Young, the longest-serving Republican in Congress, who died last week at 82.
The trip to Harmarville, and the federal bone marrow registry he helped to create, are reminders of Young's impact.
During the drive, Young talks about his humble beginnings in the 1930s and early '40s, when his family lived in a one-room shack with no electricity. He had an alcoholic father who beat his mother. He dropped out of high school at 15 to move with his mom to Florida.
The lock and dam near his boyhood home symbolize Young's deep belief that government should make people's lives better.
As a member of Congress for 42 years — six as chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee — he used his clout to fix intersections, improve waterways, equip troops and help the sick.
"It wasn't a universal thing that government ought to do everything for everybody," said Doug Gregory, who worked for Young for 39 years. "But time after time after time, I saw him (use government to) solve problems that nobody else could solve."
The lock and dam opened in 1934, long before Young was in charge of the federal checkbook. The Allegheny is a major route for commercial ships hauling cargo. A century ago, the locks were operated by for-profit companies, but they couldn't make it work. The government stepped in.
The 2006 ceremony is ostensibly to dedicate a big portrait of Young that hangs in the building, but it also gives Young's family a chance to see the lock and gives U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees an opportunity to meet the powerful congressman.
Richard Lockwood, the Corps of Engineers chief of operations in the Pittsburgh area, praises the "incredible record of selfless service by Congressman Young." Another speaker tells the crowd that "the ties between the sponsor and a lock are thought to be unbreakable."
Young steps to the microphone and says that "having this named for me by my colleagues far exceeded anything I expected. I lived a good part of my life on this river. I appreciate that this legacy remains for my family."
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Young spent a lot of time along the Allegheny as he was growing up in Harmarville, a gritty town northeast of Pittsburgh. As a boy, he jumped into the river from tire swings and joined his friend Buckets swimming around Twelve Mile Island, a rite of passage to prove their manhood.
He lived with his mother and brother in the shack. When the river flooded, the shack did, too. In one flood, it floated away.
During our visit to Harmarville, Young and his brother Tom spread the ashes of their mother in the river. Their relatives hold a cookout at the family home that was adjacent to the shack. As they are posing for a photo, Young says, "You know, if we'd move over 10 feet, we'd be on the site of the old outhouse."
Always an optimist, he says he had a great childhood because he and his family "didn't realize we were poor."
When asked about his father's occupation, Young replies, "He drank alcohol."
One time, his father beat his mother so badly that Young grabbed a floor lamp and hit his father with it. "I must have hit him pretty hard," Young says, "because it bent the lamp."
His mother decided it was time to get a fresh start somewhere else, so they packed up and headed to Florida. They ended up in Pinellas Park because that's where they ran out of money.
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In 1986, Young and his wife Beverly had befriended 11-year-old Brandy Bly, who was being treated for lymphoma at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. After she died, her doctor told the Youngs that she would have survived if they had found someone to donate bone marrow to her. At the time, there were a few small registries that tried to match donors with recipients, but there was no single registry with a large database.
As the Youngs left the hospital, Beverly poked her husband in the chest and said, "You need to fix this!"
The private-sector groups had been unable to register enough donors, so Young decided the government should do it. He first tried to get the National Institutes of Health to start a registry, but officials scoffed at the idea.
Young kept pushing and finally found a sympathetic ear with the Navy, which said it had an interest in blood diseases because of the possible risks on nuclear-powered ships. (It undoubtedly helped that Young was a senior Republican on the subcommittee that gave the Navy money.)
The marrow registry was a congressional "earmark," a term that now conjures images of wasteful political pork. But this earmark worked.
Tens of thousands of people signed up and the program grew rapidly. It now has two components, the Navy portion, which recruits minority donors and does research, and the civilian portion, the National Marrow Donor Program.
It has a database of 11.5 million possible donors. More than 55,000 people have received transplants.
"Tens of thousands of people are alive today because of the registry," said Jeffrey Chell, CEO of the program. "This is an earmark that has saved tens of thousands of lives."
Bill Adair, former Washington bureau chief and PolitiFact editor, worked for the Times for 24 years and now is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University. He remains a contributing editor to the fact-checking site and can be reached at [email protected]