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Lura Lynn dies with husband, ex-Gov. George Ryan, at her side

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Lura Lynn Ryan

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Updated: October 4, 2011 12:35AM

Former Illinois first lady Lura Lynn Ryan died at a Kankakee hospital Monday night, with her husband, convicted former Gov. George Ryan, at her bedside after a prison warden temporarily freed him so he could be with her one last time.

Mrs. Ryan, 76, had lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis that had “made it impossible for her to breathe on her own,” and had been on a respirator since Saturday night, said former Gov. James Thompson, a family friend.

The Ryan family was told Monday there was nothing more that could be done for her, according to Thompson.

“Last night, the family — including the former governor — decided to remove her respirator,” Thompson said Tuesday. “She died peacefully soon thereafter. The family was at her bedside, including Gov. Ryan, who was there through the kindness of the warden,”

Mrs. Ryan died at about 10:40 p.m. Monday at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee.

Her husband — now serving six and a half years in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., after a corruption conviction — had quietly been allowed to leave prison and visit Mrs. Ryan four times since her illness took a drastic turn for the worse early this year, according to Thompson.

The visits each lasted about two hours, until Monday night, when the former governor got to be with his wife for six hours.

“She never gave up her belief in her husband,” Thompson said. “She was determined to stay alive until he was released from prison.

“In the end, the body did not sustain that desire.”

The Ryan family waited for George Ryan to get to the hospital, and together they made the decision to take Mrs. Ryan off the respirator, Thompson said.

Thompson said the funeral for Mrs. Ryan will be small and private and that a larger memorial won’t be held until after Ryan is released for good from prison.

Mrs. Ryan was born Lura Lynn Lowe on July 5, 1934. She grew up on a farm near the small Kankakee County town of Aroma Park, where her father owned one of the nation’s first hybrid-seed companies. She moved to Kankakee for high school. After graduating, she thought about becoming a nurse but decided against it.

She was Ryan’s high school sweetheart, having caught his eye during their freshman year at Kankakee High School in 1948. He played football and basketball in high school. She was in the drama club and helped organize dances. They dated throughout high school.

“He seemed to think I was kind of cute, and I thought he was kind of handsome,” she said in a 1999 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

“It was kind of love at first sight, I guess,” her husband said then.

She would forever remain by his side, she would say time and again.

“I met George for the first time in our freshman English class,” she recalled in a Sun-Times interview last December. “I knew when I saw him that he would be my husband. And I will never forget the time he took a bus to visit me. I lived a long way out of town. And our parting kiss took so long George missed the bus and had to walk five miles back to town.

“The longest I was ever away from him was 10 months, when he was in Korea during the war. But he’s always in my heart.”

They married in 1956. Within a year, daughter Nancy, the first of their six children, was born. Daughter Lynda followed in 1961. A year later, triplets Julie, Joanne and Jeanette were born. Finally, in 1964, the Ryans’ last child arrived — George Jr.

Rearing the children fell mostly on Mrs. Ryan, as her husband, a pharmacist, often spent 16-hour days running the family’s Kankakee drug store.

“She was June Cleaver — except for the pearls,” daughter Nancy Coghlan once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I can remember her being exhausted all the time. Once in a while, Dad would recognize she had had it and take her on vacation.”

“I spent most of my life then in the laundry room, crying,” Mrs. Ryan told the Sun-Times in 1999, when she was then the incoming first lady.

During the time her husband served in the Illinois House and was away from home longer, Mrs. Ryan would load up the kids when summer came and school let out and join her husband in Springfield for the final days of the legislative session.

“A lot of wives never came to Springfield,” Mrs. Ryan said. “Sometimes, I found those were the marriages that didn’t really hold up.”

Mrs. Ryan not only adapted to the role of a political spouse, occasionally she also enjoyed some of the rewards that came with that role. In the early 1980s, when her husband was the top Republican in the Illinois House, she got to meet her idol, Frank Sinatra, at a DuPage County campaign fund-raiser organized by then-Senate Minority Leader James “Pate” Philip (R-Wood Dale).

“We were introduced to Mr. Sinatra,” she recalled. “My husband said, “My wife thinks you’re the most wonderful man in the world. I have to leave now, but will you take care of her?’ He put his arm around me, and he was just very attentive to me all evening long. I was like a star-struck girl. I just thought he had a gorgeous voice and had such charisma.”

Her husband’s historic corruption trial stretched out over seven months in 2005 and 2006. It featured intense courtroom battles, media scrutiny and repeated delays, culminating with jury deliberations being stopped and the jury being told to start all over again, before they voted to convict.

Through it all, every day, one thing never changed. Always there, sitting just a few feet from the former governor inside the courtroom, was his wife, with her signature blonde hair and glasses.

During the trial, Mrs. Ryan went before all of the assembled reporters and photographers and TV cameras and declared that prosecutors had targeted her husband because he’d commuted the sentences of 167 prisoners on Illinois’ death row. That televised appearance led to a gag order during the trial.

Mrs. Ryan also said she felt her husband was unfairly blamed for the fiery 1994 crash that killed six children in Wisconsin in a wreck involving a trucker who’d paid a bribe to obtain his commercial driver’s license from the Illinois secretary of state’s office that George Ryan headed. The money from that bribe went to a state worker who was one of Ryan’s biggest campaign fund-raisers. Ryan’s conviction on charges of racketeering, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI included charges that he quashed a state investigation into that crash.

“We hurt and have grieved for that family as well,” a tearful Mrs. Ryan said in a 2008 interview with the Sun-Times. “But that’s not going to change anything. It’s a horrible tragedy, and we do feel very badly. ... There is a God up there, and there is forgiveness.”

Andrea Lyon, a longtime friend of the Ryan family and one of Ryan’s lawyers, said there’s something that’s stuck with her from the time she spent in the Ryan home, where the family still had their original, avocado-green 1950s kitchen.

“I came to admire Mrs. Ryan as one of the kindest most empathetic people I had ever met, with a seemingly boundless amount of room in her heart for people who needed her help,” Lyon said. “Someone would just come and knock on the door: ‘I’m wondering if you can help my so and so? I need help.’ People from all walks of life — black, white, Hispanic, old, young. They were all welcome in their house. They didn’t think that their problems were more important than other people’s problems.”

Lyon said she has a copy of the couple’s high school yearbook. In it, she said, the future Mrs. Ryan wrote George Ryan a note, telling him he needed to study harder in English.

Lyon said she last saw Mrs. Ryan in the spring.

“She was in an enormous amount of pain,” Lyon said. “And she was trying everything she could to stay alive for him.”

In recent months, as her health worsened, Mrs. Ryan captured the public’s attention with her fight to stay alive long enough to see her husband free again.

When she was well, she visited her husband in prison, first when he was held in Wisconsin and later in Indiana.

In the past year, as Mrs. Ryan’s health deteriorated, she grew frustrated that she and her husband couldn’t be together. Her trips to visit her husband in prisons had to end as her illness progressed. She needed oxygen to breathe at all times, and at her Kankakee home had a long oxygen line that allowed her to walk all around the house, Lyon said.

On Jan. 5, Mrs. Ryan went into septic shock, and her doctors said she might die. She was given a chance then to be with her husband. Her hospital room in Kankakee was cleared, and the husband and wife who forged a 55-year marriage were able to spend two hours alone with each other, though his bid, through the courts, to be released early from his prison sentence then was rejected.

“I think the day will come when this will be all over,” she said in the 2008 interview. “I think we will be back together again. George is a strong person, and we’re getting through this, no matter what happens.”

In the interview last December, Mrs. Ryan said she didn’t cry when she heard the news that a judge wouldn’t release her husband early from prison as he appealed his conviction.

“I haven’t cried, and I’m not going to now,” Mrs. Ryan told Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed. “It’s the way George and I have always handled things. I just have to believe he will come home.”

Mrs. Ryan made several attempts to win a presidential pardon for her husband. In late 2008, she thought she made a breakthrough when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin took up her cause and asked then-President George Bush to commute the remainder of George Ryan’s sentence.

Any momentum was quickly curtailed when the next shoe dropped: Ryan’s successor as Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested on corruption charges.

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