CHICAGO (AP) -- Lura Lynn Ryan, the former Illinois first lady who spent the waning years of her life seeking freedom for her imprisoned husband, former Gov. George Ryan, has died after a long bout with cancer. She was 76.
Lura Lynn Ryan died late Monday at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee, said Andrea Lyon an attorney for George Ryan. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer and hospitalized for apparent complications from chemotherapy.
Kankakee County Coroner Robert Gessner said no cause of death was immediately available Tuesday.
She was a steadfast supporter of the former governor, whom she had met in high school, and maintained that he had never done anything wrong during his lengthy political career. They had been married for 55 years and friends described them as "nearly inseparable."
"If you could approach Lura Lynn, you were approaching George," said Tony Leone, a family friend and former aide to George Ryan. "She was always at his side."
The former governor, serving time on federal corruption charges, was quietly escorted from his prison cell in Terre Haute, Ind., to be with her for two hours in January in the intensive care unit at a Kankakee hospital, about 130 miles away. She had been hospitalized earlier in the day and, according to George Ryan's lawyer, drifted in and out of sleep and struggled to speak while he was there, though she recognized him.
The secret visit was not revealed until two days later, when federal prosecutors mentioned it in a court filing arguing against a request by Ryan's lawyers to have him released on bail so he could spend more time with his dying wife. The former governor was convicted on federal corruption charges in 2006, and has served three years of a 6 1/2-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy, tax fraud and making false statements to the FBI.
Lura Lynn Lowe grew up in the Kankakee County village of Aroma Park where her family, originally from Germany, had lived since 1834. Her father owned one of the nation's first hybrid seed companies. She moved to Kankakee for high school.
She and the former governor met in a high school English class. Together, they have five daughters, one son and more than a dozen grandchildren.
Family friends called her a devoted mother, wife and grandmother who was gracious to everyone she met.
Lura Lynn Ryan had no idea when they got married that her husband would go into politics. He started life as a Kankakee drug store owner.
But his brother was mayor and she started to think her husband might run for office when he helped a friend who was running for the county board and seemed to have a flair for politics.
The climb was steady, from a seat in the General Assembly to lieutenant governor to secretary of state and finally the governorship -- reaching the pinnacle of both state government and Illinois' Republican establishment.
She spoke admiringly of the mansion in Springfield -- her official home for four years -- and co-wrote a book on it called, "At Home with Illinois Governors: A Social History of the Illinois Executive Mansion, 1855-2003." She also championed early development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
Prosecutors say the road to the top for George Ryan was marred by corruption. But she focused on the positive, including Ryan's unprecedented commuting of all 156 inmates on Illinois' death row before leaving office in 2003, and his efforts to curb drunken driving. She made it a priority to participate in charitable causes, such as a program to influence teenagers to avoid drug and alcohol abuse.
"As my children grew older and I could be with him (Ryan), I kind of took up my little causes," she said. "And I think we did make a difference."
Ryan was convicted in 2006 of steering state contracts and leases to political insiders while he was secretary of state and then governor for one term. He received vacations and gifts in return. He also was accused of stopping an investigation into secretary of state employees accepting bribes in exchange for truck driver's licenses.
In 2000, Lura Lynn Ryan was pulled into the licenses-for-bribes scandal when a woman claimed she'd handed her a letter in 1998 detailing corruption at a truck licensing facility. The alleged hand-off happened at an event nine months before George Ryan was elected governor, and the former first lady said she didn't remember the letter or the woman.
Lura Lynn Ryan grew increasingly frail during her final years, appearing at her husband's court appearances with an oxygen tank.
Friends, who remembered her as strong-willed and a trusted advisor, said Tuesday that the family pulled together closer in the past years.
"The rollercoaster life of any politician can kind of break families apart, it did just the opposite," Leone said. "It united that family. They were unbelievable strong."
Funeral services were being arranged by Schreffler Funeral Homes in Kankakee. A funeral home spokesman said details hadn't been finalized but services would likely be private.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)