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Former Gov. George Ryan Was With Wife When She Died

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Lura Lynn Ryan

Lura Lynn Ryan (CBS File Photo)

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UPDATED 06/28/11 11:13 p.m.

KANKAKEE, Ill. (CBS) — Imprisoned former Gov. George Ryan got to spend a few hours with his wife before she lost her battle with lung cancer Monday night.

Lura Lynn Ryan’s children warmly welcomed family and friends to their parents’ longtime home in Kankakee on Tuesday, but they would not talk to reporters about their mother’s death. “We just want privacy our privacy now,” Homer Ryan said.

Instead, George Ryan’s attorney, former Gov. Jim Thompson described Lura Lynn Ryan’s final hours with her family at her side, including her husband, who was released for prison for several hours to be with her.

As CBS 2′s Jim Williams reports, Thompson said the Ryan family gathered at the Kankakee hospital where Mrs. Ryan, 76, was being treated, and made the decision to remove her from the respirator that had been keeping her alive.

“Governor Ryan was there, and participated in that decision; sat with the family,” Thompson said. “When she was removed from the respirator, shortly thereafter, she died peacefully, and the family was together at the end. Through the kindness of the warden, the governor was able to spend about six hours with his family last night, and with Lura Lynn, before being taken to the penitentiary.”

CBS 2′s Mike Parker has more on the story.

Mrs. Ryan, Thompson said, fought to live for one reason.

“When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and terminal lung disease, she decided that she would do everything in her power to stay alive until he was released,” Thompson said. “And she fought for that with her mind and with her body and yesterday her body finally wouldn’t let her fight anymore.”

Lura Lynn Ryan was remembered in her neighborhood as gracious and a supporter of local charities. Gina Zunke said she was a go to neighbor.

“She’s helped me since I was younger with fundraisers for school, so if I needed a raiser for band, she was there,” Zunke said.

It was a Characteristic she displayed as Illinois’ first lady, friends said.

“I just salute her, she was an admirable person, a good person, a good mother, a good grandmother, a good neighbor,” Thompson said. “Everybody speaks of her with admiration.”

Thompson pointed out that George and Lura Lynn Ryan had never been separated in their more than 55 years of marriage, except for Ryan’s service in the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea, and the 3 1/2 years that Ryan has been imprisoned – during which Mrs. Ryan visited her husband until toward the end.

The former governor, Thompson said, has been allowed to visit his dying wife three other times this year–once in January, again sometime in the spring and then again over the weekend. Each visit was about two hours. For the first two visits, Ryan was only allowed to be with his wife and not his children, Thompson said.

Mrs. Ryan had long suffered from lung cancer, and defense attorneys said back in December that she only had months to live.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780′s Steve Miller reports

As CBS 2’s Bill Kurtis reports, for most of their political life, Lura Lynn and George Ryan enjoyed a remarkable popularity. Mrs. Ryan was always at her husband’s side.

She was known as the first lady of Illinois, endorsing programs to help children and to build libraries, but most importantly, being Mrs. George Ryan.

Then things took a terrible turn. Her husband was charged by federal prosecutors for political malfeasance. It was left to Mrs. Ryan to face the public.

When asked what she would do if her husband was found guilty, she said: “I really haven’t thought about it that much. I really don’t know; if he should be found guilty, I’m sure that we’ll lose heaven only knows what all, but I’ll survive and so will he.”

She was right on one count. George Ryan was found guilty in March 2006, and was later sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison. They did lose everything.

But Mrs. Ryan would not survive lung cancer.

Still, her last test was to get her husband out of prison – if not permanently, then so she could see him one more time.

But U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer in December denied a motion to vacate part of former Gov. Ryan’s sentence and release him. Even after that, she kept fighting.

She spoke with Kurtis in December.

“I love him and miss him with all my heart, and I want him to please come home soon. I know he would love to be here with me, and one day, we will be back together the way we should be, and live a happy normal life together,” she said.

That, of course, was not to be. But it said so much about Lura Lynn Ryan.

“I was very strong, and I’ve been through this whole thing. I have great faith in the Lord, and I said, ‘Well, he evidently hasn’t been listening lately,’” she said in December. “But pretty soon, I’m going to start knocking at his door a little harder.”

George Ryan tried again to win his release in January. But the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an emergency plea to free Ryan because of his Lura Lynn’s failing health.

But Ryan was allowed to travel to Kankakee to visit his wife in intensive care on one occasion in January, and two other times before Monday night.

Ryan also visited his wife after she underwent chemotherapy, and this past Friday when she was admitted to the hospital.

Another appeal is now pending, asking to throw out a large part of George Ryan’s conviction.

Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, a close friend of the Ryan family, talked with WBBM Newsradio 780’s Mike Krauser about Lura Lynn’s passing.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780′s Mike Krauser reports

He said he made it a point to stop and say hello, as Lura Lynn’s health was failing, anytime he was in Kankakee.

“Her heart was always large, and her caring for her family and her friends was always gracious,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford said Lura Lynn Ryan was quiet and reserved in public, and always positive.

“She would always shake your hand or pat your hand,” Rutherford said. “I always thought of her as someone that was a caring mother type, or an aunt type. She was one that was very, very, very gracious to everyone around her.”

Rutherford recalls that Lura Lynn put together a history of Illinois first ladies and their impact on their husbands.

An official cause of death has not been released by the Kankakee Coroner’s office. Funeral arrangements are pending, but a private funeral is expected.

Neighbors hope former Gov. Ryan can leave the confines of prison to attend his wife’s funeral.

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