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."