If there was ever a Wonder Woman in Hood River, it just might have been Connie Young.
Young, who died suddenly last Sunday at the age of 42, was many things to many people. She was a devoted mother to her 10-year-old daughter, Hannah. She was a loving wife to her husband of 12 years, Jeff. She was a caring and motivational instructional assistant to high-needs kids at Mid-Valley Elementary School.
She was an ever-present force at her daughter’s soccer games and ski races, cheering as loudly for the kids who excelled as for those who didn’t. A beauty with enviable flowing blond hair, she was the official pre-game hair-doer for Hannah and her soccer teammates.
Cheerfully holding down two jobs, she epitomized a strong work ethic to many of her friends. And to those friends — who were seemingly numberless — she was always available to lend an ear, a hug, or her time at a moment’s notice.
The impact Connie Young had on the Hood River community during her 14 years here was evidenced by the hundreds of people who filled St. Mary’s Catholic Church to overflowing on Wednesday evening for her memorial service. After the pews were filled and a standing room-only crowd lined the walls of the sanctuary, someone ushered in the line of people — which still streamed far out into the parking lot — to sit three and four deep on the floor of the center aisle. After that, still more mourners arrived to pack the church foyer.
At one point, Deacon Lou Desitter asked Jeff Young, who was sitting in the front pew, to stand up and turn around so he could see how many people were there. Speechless, all he could do was open his arms as if to embrace the crowd.
Life as Jeff and Hannah Young knew it came to a screeching halt last Sunday afternoon. Connie was sitting on the couch in the couple’s Westside home sipping coffee as Hannah played on the living room floor and Jeff worked to fix a plumbing problem in the kitchen sink.
Suddenly, Connie dropped her coffee cup and gasped for air. Jeff flew into the living room and began doing CPR. He called 911 and paramedics arrived quickly, but Connie was already gone. The cause of death has not yet been determined.
“It’s just hit me like a ton of bricks,” Jeff said Wednesday morning. The impact perhaps felt harsher because of the fact that Jeff and Connie were apart much of the summer and fall. Jeff, a carpenter, was employed building a house in Gold Beach, on the southern Oregon coast. He had come home for Hannah’s birthday on Oct. 23, and planned to return to Gold Beach next week to finish the house before winter.
“We’ve never been away from each other in 12 years of marriage,” Jeff said. “We’ve been locked at the hip.” But the job was good and Connie supported it. Jeff, an avid windsurfer, also loved the southern coast for its proximity to Pistol River, a popular windsurfing spot.
“She knew I loved it so much, that made her happy,” Jeff said. Even before Connie and Hannah visited Jeff there last summer, Connie had fallen for the place, too; the couple had earlier bought property with a dilapidated cabin on it, and Jeff spent his spare time last summer fixing it up. The Youngs had planned to spend next summer there as a family. True to Connie’s nature, she had even lined up a couple of jobs there to begin after Hannah got out of school for the year.
Instead of looking forward to a summer at the coast, Jeff and Hannah are now left to pick up the pieces and go on without the woman who was everything to them.
“She’s just in every corner of this house,” Jeff said. Though small and slender, Connie was the powerful engine that drove the Young family. It was Connie who, after seven years of dating in Aspen, Colo., where the couple met, insisted they get married before moving to Hood River — which, until then, had been only a windsurfing vacation destination. Connie spearheaded the purchase of their house on Post Canyon Road. It was Connie who wanted a child, and quelled Jeff’s fears about becoming a parent with her confidence and her joy in becoming pregnant.
During the couple’s first few years in Hood River, Connie often held down two or three jobs to support the family while Jeff’s carpentry work was sporadic.
“I live more for the present, but Connie was always looking to the future,” Jeff said. “She was my motivator.” Ever organized, she was the one who took charge of family affairs, from shuttling Hannah to her many activities to planning for Jeff’s and her retirement.
“It was that opposites attract syndrome,” Jeff said. “It created some real magic between us.”
Connie took that same energy she gave her family to her life outside the home. For the past eight years, she worked nearly full-time as an instructional assistant for high-needs kids with multiple handicaps at Mid-Valley Elementary School.
“Connie had a lot of patience but she had high expectations, too,” said Gail Lyon, principal at Mid-Valley. “The kids she worked with all made good progress.” Lyon said the parents of kids Connie worked with have all called in the last few days to say they “feel very blessed to have had Connie work with their children.”
“She just made a huge impact on children’s lives,” Lyon said. “From a principal’s point of view, I totally appreciated her care for kids, her honesty. She was dedicated and loyal to the program and to the kids. This is a terrible blow for us and we’ll miss her a lot.”
On top of her demanding job at Mid-Valley, Connie also worked part time as a server at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Wash. She held down that job to bring in extra income, but Jeff said she “really enjoyed” it.
But for all her devotion to home life and work, Connie gave the most to her daughter.
“Hannah was her pride and joy,” Jeff said. Hannah, a 4th-grader at Westside Elementary, excelled at sports, and Connie was there for it all. She attended every soccer game and every ski race. She took her to The Hook to windsurf. She rode horses and bicycles with her.
“She liked to watch me do my sports,” Hannah said. Connie was equally devoted to Hannah’s education and was a familiar sight at Westside.
“She was a firm believer in Hannah’s education,” Jeff said. “She would read her book after book after book. I just never knew someone could be that involved with her child.”
On top of everything in her busy life, Connie managed to fit in a run every day and, during the summer, spent her spare time crafting her gardens into some of the nicest in Hood River.
But, by all accounts, those were some of the very few things she did for herself.
“She was always giving, giving, giving and never never taking anything,” Jeff said. “She put everyone else first. I’ve never met another person like that.”
Hannah remembers her mom that way, too.
“She always wanted the best for people,” she said. “She got people to be happy. She was just so amazing.”
The morning Connie died, Hannah came into Jeff and Connie’s room and climbed in bed with them.
“It was cold and we were all lying under the goose down comforter pulled up to our chins,” Jeff said. “I remember looking over at Connie and thinking, I am the luckiest guy.”
Now, less than a week later, Jeff and Hannah are in Michigan where Connie will be buried near where she grew up and where her parents still live.
Among the dozens of photographs of Hannah, Jeff and Connie lining the walls, crowding the refrigerator door and propped on shelves in the Young’s house, Jeff picked up one in particular from where it sat on top of the TV set Wednesday. It’s a picture of Jeff standing in the ocean surf looking out to sea. He holds Hannah, naked and still a baby, in his arms.
“I remember thinking, What do I do now? I’ve got this baby,” Jeff recalled as he stared at the photo. “I feel the same way now as I did then. What do I do now?” His main focus, he says, is on Hannah.
“I just want to be able to continue raising Hannah where Connie left off,” he said. “I’ll never be as good as Connie. But we’ll try to pick up the pieces and do the best we can.”