Former Gov. George Ryan was with his ailing wife Lura Lynn as she was taken off a respirator and died at a Kankakee hospital Monday.
Ryan was temporarily released from prison in Terre Haute, Ind. so he could be at her bedside during her final hours, according to one of Ryan's lawyers, former Gov. Jim Thompson.
Lura Lynn Ryan -- who stood faithfully by her husband through his decades in politics, a lengthy trial and subsequent imprisonment -- died just before 11 p.m. Monday after being hospitalized for apparent complications from chemotherapy. She was 76.
Mrs. Ryan had been in failing health for some time. Diagnosed with chronic cancer, she was hooked up to an oxygen tank in December, when Ryan’s lawyers sought an early release for the disgraced governor.
Though the request was denied by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, Ryan had been secretly released on four occasions since January to be with his wife of 55 years, Thompson said.
Last Friday, Ryan's lawyers petitioned an appellate court to allow Ryan to leave prison and visit his wife in the hospital but the court refused. On Monday, the warden at the Terre Haute prison allowed him a six-hour release, Thompson said.
The family waited for Ryan to arrive before they removed Lura Lynn Ryan from breathing machines. She was not able to speak or even acknowledge her husband because she was under heavy sedation to help her tolerate the pain of the breathing tubes.
But the visit still "meant the world to him," Thompson said. "His wife's life was going to end. He thought he should be there with her and the children."
Recently, Lura Lynn Ryan made an extraordinary effort, considering her illness, to visit her husband in prison on their 55th wedding anniversary, Thompson said. "She had been visiting him regularly until she took this turn for the worse. But she was there for their anniversary. It was an extraordinary relationship."
Thompson said Ryan has been able to see his wife four times in recent months, typically for two-hour visits. All the releases were approved by the warden. Funeral arrangements will be private, and Ryan would have to request permission to leave again, Thompson said.
Tony Leone, a longtime Ryan family friend, said a public memorial will likely be held later. "It's a sad day. She was a great lady that did a lot for the citizens of the state of Illinois," Leone said.
Mrs. Ryan's support for her husband was unwavering even as he fell to a sweeping federal corruption case that resulted in his conviction in 2006 on charges of doling out sweetheart deals to friends and using state resources and employees for political gain while serving as secretary of state and governor.
"Even with her husband in prison and when I would see her, she was on oxygen, but she was a strong woman, with a strong faith in God and she always felt optimistic and felt things would work for the best," said state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who often visited Mrs. Ryan in recent months.
The Ryans were freshmen at Kankakee High School when they met in an English class.
"It was love at first sight, I guess," Mrs. Ryan said in a 1982 Tribune article.
The former Lura Lynn Lowe, the youngest daughter of a Kankakee hybrid seed merchant, and George Ryan dated for eight years while he attended college and did a hitch in the Army. They were married in 1956 and together had six children, including a set of triplets. At one time five were in diapers.
Mrs. Ryan's nurturing manner extended to her husband's friends and allies as he climbed through the political ranks.
"She was everybody's mother," said Lawrence Warner, a lobbyist and longtime family friend who was convicted along with George Ryan. "Everybody who worked closely with her became a member of her family and she cared about them."
While in public, Mrs. Ryan seemed a quiet, old-style political wife, but she was a trusted behind-the-scenes adviser to her husband, according to Warner.
"She was always in the background, but people didn't realize she had a tremendous say in many of his important decisions," Warner said. "At the end of the day, when he was trying to make different decisions about his political life ... you know that whatever was said he was going to go home and talk it over with her before he made his decision."
Rutherford noted the contrast between the Mrs. Ryan's gentle nature and her blunt-spoken husband.
"I never saw her with an ill word or malicious comment about anyone," said Rutherford.. "This business is tough and with what she went through, it had to be tough on her personally. She was a genteel person of politics."
Mrs. Ryan traveled with her husband to national political conventions, golf outings and on fund-raising trips. She accompanied her husband to Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro as the governor sought to open the door to Illinois products, and to South Africa, where they met with Nelson Mandela and the state established a trade office.
The governor helped her on and off the planes on the South African trip when she suffered from back pain, but she did not voice complaints.
"As gruff a reputation as George Ryan might have, when Lura Lynn was with him, they were fun, just a lot of fun playing off of each other," said Tony Leone, who served as clerk of the Illinois House when Mr. Ryan was speaker.
A personable hostess, she served freshly baked banana bread to actors Steve McQueen and LeVar Burton when they were in Kankakee to film the 1980 movie "The Hunter." In Springfield, she would don a fairy princess costume and wield a wand while greeting children at the Governor's Mansion on Halloween.
"She was the ultimate hostess that dignified the Executive Mansion," Leone said.
As first lady, she devoted much of her time to charitable causes and spearheaded the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. She served as first chair of the foundation supporting the museum and pushed to establish a children's education room in the sprawling structure.
She promoted literacy programs and after-school initiatives aimed at curbing drug use and crime among young people.
Prevention First, an anti-drug agency, named research libraries in Chicago and Springfield in Mrs. Ryan's honor. The two branches of the Lura Lynn Ryan Prevention Research Libraries hold one of the nation's most comprehensive collections.
She also was active with the Executive Mansion Association, which is the private association that provides upkeep on the governor's mansion in Springfield. With historian Dan Monroe, she wrote a book titled "At Home with Illinois Governors: A Social History of the Illinois Executive Mansion, 1855-2003."
David Bourland, the curator of the Executive Mansion, said Mrs. Ryan set the benchmark for how future Illinois first ladies would be judged.
"She didn't do the job because it was required of her. She did the job because she truly loved it," Bourland said. "When she became first lady and moved into the mansion, all the staff became part of her extended family."
But Kankakee remained the Ryans' lifelong home.
"She would fix up the home at Kankakee and have (Ryan's) staff over," Leone said. "She had two little toy ducks that were on the front porch, and she would dress them for the holidays."
In 2008 she made a personal appeal for her husband's release to then-President George W. Bush's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, writing a letter to the president that was hand-delivered to White House aides.
"I just don't feel that George is where he should be," she said at the time.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times