More than 500 people lined the pews in the main auditorium of Anchorage Baptist Temple on Saturday to remember longtime U.S. Congressman Don Young, who died unexpectedly in March at 88 years old.
For an hour and a half, speakers including Alaska’s two U.S. senators, the governor and one of Young’s daughters, told heartfelt and sometimes wacky tales from the Republican congressman’s life. They recounted how he fought for Alaska for decades. They acknowledged his sometimes off-color comments, but said he was relatable.
“He’s a teacher. He’s a trapper. He’s a tugboat captain,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “He’s just kind of a regular Alaskan guy, who somehow or other decades ago — 49 years ago — found his way to Washington, D.C.”
Young died on March 18 after losing consciousness on an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle. Saturday’s event follows a memorial last week in Virginia, where he lived for much of his time as a congressman, and another at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
In Anchorage, Murkowski spoke of the respect Young commanded, even from political opponents who saw his passion for Alaska. She said Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to have him lie in state made him only the second congressman to have the honor. Murkowski also said that President Joe Biden visited Young’s wife Anne and daughters Joni and Dawn after the public service in Washington.
“There wasn’t a lot of flash,” she said. “There’s a lot of time with Anne, and Joni and Dawn, talking to them.”
Murkowski spoke to a crowd of hundreds. Many wore well-pressed suits, but others wore leather motorcycle vests or ornate kuspuks.
They listened and laughed along as speakers shared stories about Young, including how he called former President Donald Trump “the other Don” to his face. Or how he famously pulled a knife on the former Speaker of the House John Boehner.
U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan told about the time Pelosi spotted a bolo tie Young was wearing. It had carvings of a walrus, a salmon and a seal on it. Pelosi teased him that the animals showed he was turning into an environmentalist.
“‘No, Nancy,’ he replied, pointing to the animals. ‘This is lunch,’” Sullivan said to laughter.
When it was Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s turn at the podium he talked about a call he got from Young. He said it came as he, as governor, was facing a historic wildfire season as well as political blowback from an attempt to slash the state budget. Dunleavy said Young, calling from an unknown number, thanked him.
“I said, ‘What for Congressman?’” recounted Dunleavy. He said Young responded: “Because you knocked me off the front page of that newspaper in Anchorage.”
Dunleavy also recalled the last phone call he ever got from Young. He said he has a recording of the call, in which Young suggested they charter a military plane to fly Ukrainian refugees to Alaska, where they could work in the fishing industry.
“I got that recording. I got a few other recordings too, but I’m gonna hang on to them,” said Dunleavy.
Several of Young’s family members also attended. His youngest daughter Dawn was the only one who spoke. She said her dad was often gruff on the outside, but was a caring father.
As an 11-year-old living in Virginia, she said, she threw a fit in front of her mom while her dad was in Alaska. When her mom asked her what was wrong, she said she wanted her dad. The next day, she was called into the principal’s office to find Don Young waiting for her.
“I said, ‘Daddy, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in Alaska,’” she said. “And he said, ’Your mother called me and she said you needed me.’ He got on a plane and he flew all night because I said I wanted my daddy.”
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson also spoke at the memorial service, as did three leaders of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, including the founder Jerry Prevo, current head pastor Ron Hoffman and Glenn Clary, a pastor and the former chairman of the Alaska Republican Party. Prevo gave a 15-minute sermon at the end of the service.
“You say, ‘Well, Don wasn’t perfect,'” he said. “Well, I’m glad you don’t have to be perfect to go to heaven.”
The event came the day after the filing deadline for the special election that will be held to fill the rest of Young’s term.
Many of the candidates hoping to serve in Alaska’s sole congressional seat attended the event, including Sen. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage, who co-chaired Young’s reelection effort and wore a lapel button that said, “I’m a Young man.” Former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the Interior Department Tara Sweeney also attended. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was there. She later told reporters that Young’s legacy had inspired her to run.