History Thursday: Pugnacious Ohio senator was unafraid to insult critics

U.S. Sen. Stephen Young of Ohio served from 1959 to 1971. Photo courtesy GovTrack.

To some, he was an old curmudgeon. To others, he was a wise truth teller who told it like it is.

Either way, U.S. Sen. Stephen Young of Ohio was one politician not afraid to speak his mind. The Norwalk Democrat retired from Congress in 1971 as the oldest senator at age 81, deciding against running for reelection after two terms in the senate.

Retirement isn’t exactly the word. He planned to return to practicing law, telling the Associated Press in his final days on Capitol Hill: “If I retired, I’d be dead in a few years.” (He’d go on to live to be 95 years old.)

Young was best known for his fiery speeches and sharp-tongued replies to letters sent to him by constituents.

He once called an Ohio voter a “low-down skunk and liar.” Another was referred as being “lower than a snake’s tail in a wagon rut.” 

Young reserved his harshest language for those who defended the Ohio National Guard’s killing of four students at Kent State University in May 1970. 

“Only a cruel ignoramus would take the position that those four students — not one of whom was rioting or throwing stones — deserved to be killed. Also, you are a stupid, cruel jerk,” Young wrote to one such person.

While other lawmakers might try to hide such correspondence, Young made copies of his letters to give out to reporters. He also had a habit of giving away “Sen. Stephen M. Young” ballpoint pens, the AP reported. 

Young never held his punches, either metaphorically or literally. Even in his 80s, the pugnacious lawmaker visited the Senate gymnasium every day to throw jabs at a punching bag. 

He was an old-school politician through and through.

“I don’t accept gifts of more than $5 in value,” he told the AP. “But every bottle of liquor, I assess at $4.99.”

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.