Hundreds gather at Anchorage Baptist Temple to remember the late Congressman Don Young

colorguard folds a flag
A color guard folds a flag during the memorial for Rep. Don Young at Anchorage Baptist Temple on Saturday, April 2, 2022. The flag was later presented to Young’s widow. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

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.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks at the memorial. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
four people on a stage
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson listen to the memorial service for Rep. Don Young. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

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.

RELATED: Don Young, never one to stand on ceremony, lies in state in US Capitol

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.

dozens of people fill pews
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson are led to the stage at the memorial for Rep. Don Young at Anchorage Baptist Temple. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

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. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, speaks at the memorial. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

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.”

Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks at the memorial. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

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.

Dawn Vallely, one of Rep. Don Young’s daughters. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

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.”

Rep Don Young’s widow, Anne Walton, smiles at a joke during her husband’s memorial. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

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.”

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson speaks at the memorial. He told the audience that during one of his calls with Rep. Don Young, the congressman had joked that Sen. Ted Stevens had more infrastructure projects named after him than he did. Young suggested the Port of Alaska be named after himself. Bronson has proposed naming the Port of Alaska after Young. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
A man speaks at a lectern in front of a large image of  another man on a screen
Jerry Prevo speaks at Re. Don Young’s memorial service. Prevo delivered 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.” (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

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.

RELATED: Sarah Palin among 51 candidates running to fill remainder of Don Young’s term in US House

Former Gov. Sarah Palin at the memorial for Rep. Don Young. She told reporters that Don Young’s legacy had inspired her to run for his vacant seat. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
Former Trump Interior official Tara Sweeney. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell (center) and former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich (bottom left) at the memorial for Rep. Don Young. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Anchorage School Board member and former state legislator Dave Donley and Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes talk at the memorial for Rep. Don Young. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
A control room with a bunch of screens
Technicians in the control room that was broadcasting Rep. Don Young’s memorial service. The service was streamed through Alaska’s News Source and Anchorage Baptist Temple. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)
State Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, at the memorial for Rep. Don Young. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Seen from the balcony, a tall man hands something to a woman in front of a stage
Gov. Mike Dunleavy presents a flag to Anne Young, Rep. Don Young’s widow. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.