U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the longest-serving Republican in Congress and a legislator who consistently brought federal dollars to the Tampa Bay area and his home district of Pinellas County, died Friday evening from complications related to a chronic injury, according to sources close to the family. He was 82.
Young served with eight U.S. presidents over parts of five decades. He leaves behind a stunning volume of legislative accomplishment in which he tapped federal funds to improve science and public health, military readiness, the beaches, transportation and access to drinking water.
The marine science complex at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the currently closed Tampa Bay Water Reservoir bear his name.
In recent years, the senior statesman and longest-serving Floridian in Congress had become less enchanted with Washington's ongoing partisan divide. He was also complaining of a nagging back injury, the result of a 1970 plane crash, and was seen walking on the House floor with a cane or being pushed in a wheelchair.
On Oct. 9, Young announced plans to step down after nearly 53 years of service when his 22nd term ended in 2014.
"Bill Young is the dean of the Florida congressional delegation, a tireless voice for our men and women in uniform and America's national security," House Speaker John Boehner said after hearing the news Young would retire. "Since 1970, he has served with distinction in the People's House — and both the House and the people are better for it."
As chair of the House Appropriations Committee from 1995 to 2005, Young worked a diverse army of contacts to change the local landscape. The VA Medical Center at Bay Pines is the result of his handiwork, not to mention the vast improvements to a stretch of U.S. 19, beach renourishment and opposition to offshore drilling, positions near and dear to the Indian Shores Republican.
Before and after that chairmanship, Young led the Appropriations subcommittee on military spending. He is credited with saving MacDill Air Force Base from closing in 1991, and for securing the federal funds for the U.S. Central Command's new $75 million headquarters there.
The sweep of Young's influence can be measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars he managed to earmark for Pinellas County and Florida. In 2010 alone, the last year before earmarks were banned, Young single-handedly secured nearly $87 million for a variety of projects, many of them designed for hi-tech counterterrorism and defense.
A longtime advocate for biomedical research, Young led successful efforts to immunize preschoolers, improve public health programs nationwide and search for cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
Another effort aimed at leukemia and other blood diseases, the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program, had by 2012 attracted nearly 10 million bone marrow donors in a national registry.
His reputation for responsiveness and bringing home the bacon won Young a dependable slice of normally Democratic voters in every election.
"Everyone felt that Bill Young had done them a favor," said Karen Moffitt, a Democrat who lost to Young in 1992 with 43 percent of the vote. "Everywhere I went they said, 'Well, you know, Bill Young did me a favor.'"
C.W. Bill Young was born Dec. 16, 1930, in Harmarville, Pa., when it was a coal mining town. He grew up in a tool shed converted to a small house on the banks of the Allegheny River.
Long after that shed washed away in a flood, Young kept a photo of his childhood home in his office in Washington, D.C., a hedge against getting a big head.
"Every time I think, 'Hey, I'm something special,' I glance at that little house," he said when he was confirmed as the Appropriations chair.
A high-school dropout, Young moved to the St. Petersburg area in 1945. He served in the Florida National Guard from 1948 to 1957, and was honorably discharged as a master sergeant.
Young ran his own insurance agency. He and his first wife, the former Marian Ford, lived in Seminole. From 1957 to 1960, he served as an aide to Republican congressman William C. Cramer, who would become a key ally.
In 1960, at age 29, Young became the only Republican in the Democrat-controlled Florida Senate.
From 1962 to 1964 he sat on the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, better known as the Johns Committee, one of the few sour notes in what has often been heralded as a sterling legislative career. The committee targeted people it suspected of homosexuality or communism, particularly in state universities and the NAACP. In a 1993 interview with the Times, Young said he recalled little of the committee or its meetings.
As for gay and lesbian orientation, which he had in 1964 described as "a very repulsive act," his position had softened.
"That's the decision of the people who are involved in it," Young said. "If someone wants to engage in that sort of behavior, that's their choice."
Young was a clear up-and-comer in the 1960s, winning awards from his colleagues and tapped an "outstanding young man in America" by the national Jaycees.
He also joined forces with Cramer, his mentor, and Jack Insco, a Cramer aide, to increase Republican influence. "ICY," an acronym formed by the first letters of the last names of each man, proved a powerful triumvirate in Pinellas County, backing at least four of seven school board members and four of five county commissioners.
He ran for the U.S. House in 1970, winning a vacant seat when Cramer launched a failed bid for the Senate. He was virtually unstoppable ever since, often running unopposed.
In 1985 Young divorced his wife of 36 years. He married Beverly Angello, who had worked as a secretary in his congressional office, eight days later.
Times have changed since his days heading the Appropriations committee. Federal spending has fallen out of favor, earmarks have been banned, and the bipartisan dealing on which he built his legacy has given way to a partisan brinkmanship.
"I thank Bill for all of his years of dedicated public service," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said last week. "He was always someone who approached solutions in a bipartisan way."
Young at first backed colleagues who tied defunding the Affordable Care Act to federal spending, then withdrew that support.
"The politics should be over," he told the Times. "It's time to lead."
His retirement announcement seemed to have caught most everyone off guard, including his wife.
Across the country, a much greater sense of loss is accumulating now.