LARGO — The chilly weather lent itself to the solemnity of the day’s events honoring a man known for his profound influence in the Tampa Bay area and beyond, as those who knew U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young as a friend, family member or colleague gathered to pay their respects Thursday.
Minutes before Young’s funeral was to begin, a black hearse pulled up to the entryway of First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks and then waited as at least three generations of his family walked out to receive the coffin. More than 20 family members quietly cried and comforted one another as six service members pulled Young’s flag-draped coffin out of the car and hoisted it onto their shoulders. One of Young’s sons, Patrick, wrapped his arms around his composed but emotional mother, Beverly, before the family followed the coffin into the church.
Inside, between 800 and 1,000 people were gathered inside the congregation’s large sanctuary, according to estimates from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. That’s a far smaller crowd than the thousands that were expected, but the caliber of people in attendance — including House Speaker John Boehner, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and dozens of members of Congress — reflected the impact Young had on the country he served for five decades.
“He was a man that loved, in this order, God, his family, his country and the House Appropriations Committee,” said Boehner, sobbing a little while delivering the first of several eulogies for Young.
“No one man or one woman can fill his shoes. It will take all of us.”
Former Secretary of Defense Gordon England read a letter former president George W. Bush wrote to Young’s wife.
“Bill’s contributions to our nation are many,” Bush said in the letter. “Perhaps most noteworthy was his devotion to our military. He was unrelenting in using his influence to support our men and women in uniform.”
Young started out in the state Legislature, where he spent nearly a decade before running for Congress. By the time of his death last Friday, the 82-year-old Young was the longest-tenured Republican in Congress, which shut down on Thursday so members could attend his funeral.
Among those offering eulogies were England; Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps; Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House; and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the man expected to replace Young as chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee. Attorney General Pam Bondi, former attorney general and U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis and state Sen. Jack Latvala were also on hand to pay their respects.
Far more numerous were the legions of constituents — some of whom knew Young, some of whom didn’t — who all spoke of Young as a cherished friend they’d come to admire, trust and rely on over the years.
“Bill Young and his wife Beverly have done so much for Gold Star families and for the wounded,” said Kari Cowan, who became a Gold Star spouse — one who loses a spouse in combat — in 2005 after her husband, Aaron Cowan, was killed in a helicopter accident in Korea.
“I have two sons who are veterans, and what the Youngs have done means so much, so I wanted to come and honor him.”
As chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, Young fought hard for veterans, pulling strings when he needed to and taking a personal interest in the lives of countless service members. He and his wife routinely visited the bedsides of wounded soldiers back home and in the Washington, D.C. area.
“He made a point of stepping in and helping military families whenever he could,” said Amos. “Chairman Young got involved in the lives of troops because he never took freedom for granted.”
During the early days of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Young met with family members of the wounded and learned that one thing they really needed was a Fisher House, which gives those families a place to stay on the hospital grounds while their loved ones go through the often long and arduous recovery, said Dr. Steven Scott, chief of medicine and rehabilitation services at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa.
“He met with a group of family members here, and the next thing you know, he got it done,” said Scott.
Many of those he helped came to honor Young on Thursday.
“No one did more for veterans,” said Randall McNabb, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, the nonprofit motorcycle group that escorted Young’s casket to Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, where he was buried.
McNabb, who served as an MP in the Army, reached out to Young after what was then known as St. Petersburg Junior College billed him for classes that were supposed to be covered through the U.S. Veterans Administration.
“I called up Bill, and I never got another letter seeking payment after that,” said McNabb.
The large number of Democrats at Young’s funeral spoke to his willingness to reach across the aisle to get things done. Young’s moderate views in a time of heightened political antagonism won him the respect of people across the political spectrum.
During Thursday’s funeral service, Hoyer called Young “a very special man who lived Lincoln’s admonition: ‘charity for all and malice toward none.’ ”
Some observers say Young’s death reflects the end of an era where leaders with opposing viewpoints worked together to find solutions on important issues.
“Bill Young represented the kind of person that would reach out and respect the other fella and then work out the differences in a bipartisan way,” Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said outside First Baptist Church before Young’s funeral. “What a contrast to what we’re seeing today, where it’s so ideologically driven and so partisan.”
The service also highlighted Young’s role as a family man.
Four of Young’s sons — including Josh Callihan, the injured Marine the Youngs took in after visiting him in the hospital — took the stage to share that part of his life Thursday. Sometimes holding back sobs, they spoke of his fair-mindedness, his innate sense of respect and his devotion to his family, especially Beverly, who sat quietly in the front row.
Billy Young said he spoke to his father on the phone nearly every day.
“I don’t know if he knew that I was calling for advice,” he said. “I think he thought I was just calling to check in on him and make sure he was doing OK. But every conversation I had with him, I was taking advice from him because he was one of the best men this world will know.”
Accolades started pouring in for the longtime congressman from Indian Shores even before he died, as he fought for his life at Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland. Back home, heartfelt expressions of gratitude and admiration seemed to rise in every corner of the district he represented for 42 years, where he gained a reputation for tending to constituents’ needs and bringing back federal dollars. Even outside Young’s district, though, people spoke lovingly of Young, as did former colleagues on Thursday.
“I really looked up to him,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, speaking under the cupola of the First Baptist Church after Young’s funeral, as people were milling about, still sharing memories.
The Republican from Palm Harbor, who followed in his father Mike’s footsteps, said he visited Young in the hospital two days before he died and was shocked to discover how sick he was.
“I told him we loved him, all his colleagues loved him,” Bilirakis said. “I told him I would do everything I could for the men and women who serve, and especially our wounded veterans. We’ll miss him. There is no way to replace him.”
Young, a nine-year veteran of the Army National Guard who also spent six more years as a reservist, was buried at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg at a private ceremony attended by dozens of his closest friends and family. It was a short, quiet ceremony, punctuated by the sounds of “Taps” and a gun salute. The cemetery sits next to the Bay Pines VA Medical Center, which likely will soon become yet another of Young’s namesakes.
A bill to rename the hospital after Young passed a voice vote on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night and will likely be taken up by the Senate, in a bill introduced by Sens. Nelson and Marco Rubio, when it returns from recess next week.
The honor seems fitting to Jack Arrant, Beverly Young’s uncle, a U.S. Army veteran who receives medical care at Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
“The doctors said one day the place would be named for him because he did so much for it,” Arrant, 84, said outside the church before Young’s funeral.