C.W. Bill Young, longtime Fla. congressman, dies at 82

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP - Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., speaks on Capitol Hill in March of 2007.

C.W. Bill Young, a Florida congressman who grew up in a one-room shack and later became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the longest-serving current Republican member of the House, died Oct. 18 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. He was 82.

His family released a statement saying the congressman had complications from a chronic back injury that had worsened over the years. Mr. Young was in a serious small-plane accident in 1970, the year he was elected to Congress.

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A genteel, old-style politician known for his silver pompadour and easygoing bonhomie, Mr. Young was in his 22nd term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“He would be your classic gentleman member of Congress,” Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said in an interview. “His strong suit was his leadership in the House. As Congress was changing, he never changed in his civility toward his opponents and his constituents.”

Mr. Young announced last week that he would not seek reelection. His district includes large sections of St. Petersburg and Clearwater in Pinellas County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. As a subcommittee chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he was considered a congressional “cardinal,” and was a seasoned veteran of many legislative battles.

“Not a day went by without a colleague seeking Bill’s counsel as he sat on his perch in the corner of the House floor,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “Here was a man who had seen it all and accomplished much.”

As a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee, and its chairman from 1998 through 2004, Mr. Young was adept at steering funds to his district and state. He was a strong supporter of the military and was credited with helping save MacDill Air Force Base in nearby Tampa from being closed in a base-reduction effort. MacDill later became home to the U.S. Central Command and the Special Operations Command.

Mr. Young was once described by a local newspaper as “one of the all-time appropriations kings, using years of accumulated power to secure hundreds of millions in ‘earmarks.’ ”

The practice of earmarking funds, in which members of Congress direct money to specific purposes, was banned after the 2010 election. That year, before the ban was adopted, Mr. Young earmarked an estimated $128 million, much of it for his district and home state. Few congressmen could boast of such influence over the federal purse strings.

One of the country’s largest veterans hospitals was built in Mr. Young’s district, and federal money was secured for university research centers, airport improvements, schools and highways. He also championed environmental projects to protect the Everglades and Gulf of Mexico.

His proudest achievement, he often said, was establishing a Navy-sponsored program that connects donors and recipients for bone-marrow transplants.

From time to time, Mr. Young came under fire from watchdog groups that accused him of being too cozy with lobbyists, including groups led by his daughter-in-law and former staff members.

Mr. Young often worked with Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who was one of his closest friends in the House before Murtha’s death in 2010. Both were from western Pennsylvania, and both chaired the Appropriations defense subcommittee. Mr. Young was the subcommittee chairman at the time of his death.

Charles William Young was born Dec. 16, 1930, in Harmarville, Pa. He was raised by a single mother after his father abandoned the family. He grew up in a coal town that was so grimy, Mr. Young once said, “I thought fresh air had to smell like sulfur.”

When he was 6, the family’s one-room shack was swept down a river in a flood. He kept a photograph of the shanty on his office wall as a reminder not to get too “puffed up.”

Mr. Young quit school at 15 to support his mother after she fell ill on a visit to Florida. He found a job hauling concrete, later served in the Army Reserve and headed an insurance agency before becoming an aide to Rep. William C. Cramer (R-Fla.).

Mr. Young was elected to the Florida Senate in 1960 as its only Republican and then succeeded Cramer in Congress.

Mr. Young’s first marriage, to Marian Ford, ended in divorce shortly before his 1985 marriage to Beverly Angello. In addition to his wife, of Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., survivors include three children from his first marriage and two sons from his second.

Mr. Young had served in Congress so long that 46 of his House colleagues had not been born when he was first elected in 1970. During the recent standoff over the federal government shutdown, he criticized an “outspoken minority” of his own party.

“It seems there’s too much politics,” he told the Tampa Bay Times last week. “It’s a different Congress.”