“It’s with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we announce Congressman Don Young (R-AK), the Dean of the House and revered champion for Alaska, passed away today while traveling home to Alaska to be with the state and people that he loved. His beloved wife Anne was by his side,” said the statement from his spokesperson, Zach Brown.
Young, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1973, was known for his brusque style. In his later years in office, his off-color comments and gaffes sometimes overshadowed his work. During his 2014 reelection bid, he described himself as intense and less-than-perfect but said he wouldn’t stop fighting for Alaska.
Born on June 9, 1933, in Meridian, California, Young grew up on a family farm. He earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching at Chico State College, now known as California State University, Chico, in 1958. He also served in the U.S. Army, according to his official biography.
Young came to Alaska in 1959, the same year Alaska became a state, and credited Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” which his father used to read to him, for drawing him north.
“I can’t stand heat, and I was working on a ranch and I used to dream of some place cold, and no snakes and no poison oak,” Young told The Associated Press in 2016. After leaving the military and after his father’s death, he told his mother he was going to Alaska. She questioned his decision.
“I said, ‘I’m going up (to) drive dogs, catch fur and I want to mine gold.’ And I did that,” he said. In Alaska, he met his first wife, Lu, who convinced him to enter politics, which he said was unfortunate in one sense — it sent him to Washington, D.C., “a place that’s hotter than hell in the summer. And there’s lots of snakes here, two-legged snakes.”
In Alaska, Young settled in Fort Yukon, a small community accessible primarily by air at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers in the state’s rugged, harsh interior. He held jobs in areas like construction, trapping and commercial fishing. He was a tug and barge operator who delivered supplies to villages along the Yukon River, and taught fifth grade at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, according to his biography. With Lu, he had two daughters, Joni and Dawn.
He was elected mayor of Fort Yukon in 1964 and elected to the state House two years later. He served two terms before winning election to the state Senate, where, he said, he was miserable. Lu said he needed to get out of the job, which he resisted, saying he doesn’t quit. He recalled that she encouraged him instead to run for U.S. House, saying he’d never win.
In 1972, Young was the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Begich. Three weeks before the election, Begich’s plane disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. Alaskans reelected Begich anyway.
Begich was declared dead in December 1972 and Young won a close special election in March 1973. He held the seat until 2022, and was running for reelection in November.
In 2013, Young became the longest-serving member of Alaska’s congressional delegation, surpassing the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who served for 40 years. That year, he also became the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House.
In 2015, nearly six years after Lu Young’s death, and on his 82nd birthday, Young married Anne Garland Walton in a private ceremony in the U.S. Capitol chapel.
“Everybody knows Don Young,” he told the AP in 2016. “They may not like Don Young; they may love Don Young. But they all know Don Young.”
Young said he wanted his legacy to be one of working for the people. He counted among his career highlights passage of legislation his first year in office that allowed for construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline system, which became the state’s economic lifeline. With that successful pipeline fight, “I found a niche in my life where I enjoy working for the people of Alaska and this nation — primarily the people of Alaska,” Young said in 2016, adding later: “I like the House.”
During his career, he unapologetically supported earmarks as a way to bring home projects and build up infrastructure in a geographically huge state where communities range from big cities to tiny villages; critics deemed earmarks as pork.
Young branded himself a conservative and won support with voters for his stances on gun and hunting rights and a strong military. He made a career out of railing against “extreme environmentalists” and a federal bureaucracy that he saw as locking up Alaska’s mineral, timber and petroleum resources. He said his word was a “gold bond.”
He said he was happy every time he could help a constituent. “And I try to do that every day, and I’m very good at that,” he told AP in 2016. At that time, he said he’d had 190 of his bills pass the House and had 77 of them signed by a president.
His career was marred by investigations and criticism about his off-the-cuff and often abrasive style.
In 2008, Congress asked the Justice Department to investigate Young’s role in securing a $10 million earmark to widen a Florida highway; the matter was dropped in 2010, and Young denied any wrongdoing.
In December 2011, the U.S. House Ethics Committee said it was revising its rules to impose new contribution limits on owners who run multiple companies following questions raised by the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics about donations made to Young.
In 2014, the ethics committee found that Young had violated House rules by using campaign funds for personal trips and accepting improper gifts. Young was told to repay the value of the trips and gifts, totaling about $59,000, and amend financial disclosure statements to include gifts he hadn’t reported. The committee also issued a “letter of reproval,” or rebuke. Young said he regretted the “oversights” and apologized for failing to exercise “due care” in complying with the House’s Code of Conduct.
Fresh off a reelection win in 2020, Young announced he had tested positive for Covid-19, months after he had referred to the coronavirus as the “beer virus” before an audience that included older Alaskans and said the media had contributed to hysteria over Covid-19.
He later called Covid-19, for which he had been hospitalized, serious and encouraged Alaskans to follow guidelines meant to guard against the illness.
Despite the controversies, voters kept sending him back to Washington, something Young said he didn’t take for granted.
“Alaskans have been generous with their support for me because they know I get the job done,” he said in 2016. “I’ll defend my state to the dying breath, and I will always do that and they know that.”