Remembering Larry O'Neal, a joyful connector in Spokane's arts scene

Remembering Larry O'Neal, a joyful connector in Spokane's arts scene
Photo courtesy Mike Loft
Larry O'Neal; the "Live Like Larry" design. |photo Courtesy Mike Loft

Spokane's arts and culture community recently lost a beloved arts supporter, volunteer and artist: Larry O'Neal. Always quick with a joke, O'Neal was easy to spot in a crowd with his signature colorful glasses and warm smile.

"Everyone knows Larry," says Jackie Caro, operations director at Terrain. "Have you met anyone in Spokane who doesn't?" she adds, laughing. "I once had a friend tell me how she saw the cutest couple at Thomas Hammer doing crosswords and how in love they were. Of course it was Larry and Mike."

O'Neal and Mike Loft began dating in 1989, training together for Bloomsday and going out to dinner. They built a 35-year life together, weaving a rich tapestry of friendships in their neighborhood, church, workplaces and broader community. O'Neal and Loft were a constant in the local arts and culture scene, always attending events like First Friday, Spokane Pride, Pivot and the Pie & Whiskey reading at Get Lit!

Fifteen years ago, they met another joyful duo supporting the arts: Mike and Christi Malsam.

"We kept going to all these events and seeing this couple," Malsam says. "Christi introduced herself, and they'd been thinking the same thing about us. The joke was, 'Well, we saw you here, so it must be pretty cool.'"

In addition to attending gallery openings and poetry readings, O'Neal believed in a life of service. He volunteered for Spark Central and Terrain, and cultivated a long-running book club, combining his love of literature with a passion for connecting people and promoting local authors.

"People liked the books, but really they were showing up for him," Loft says with a smile.

Three years ago, O'Neal was diagnosed with cancer. Throughout his illness, he continued to show up for others with generosity, kindness and humor. At each stage of treatment, he'd ask the doctors, "Can I keep working?," eager to continue at Terrain's retail space From Here, where he championed local writers and makers.

"Larry was very candid and honest in our staff meetings about his cancer," Caro says, "But he would always say, 'I want to be around people; people are giving me life.'"

Loft says O'Neal told him it was the happiest place he'd ever worked.

"My last interaction with him was one of his final days at From Here, when he phoned me to come meet a young writer he was working with," says Spokane author Sharma Shields. "Larry was a supporter of indie bookstores, small literary events, big literary events and writers at all stages of their careers. An amazing literary community member."

O'Neal drew, painted, acted and wrote at different times throughout his life, finding fulfillment in creativity. Loft says he'd been working on a book of his own, which Loft hopes to share someday. Friends believe art helped O'Neal keep going for as long as he did.

"It was so important for him to have art in his life," Caro says. "It filled his soul."

"Larry thought like an artist, and his art form was connecting with other people," Malsam says. "How he made people feel — that was Larry's gift."

In 2023, O'Neal signed up for the Boulevard Race benefiting Community Cancer Fund. Longtime friend Cindi Miraglia decided to join. She'd known the couple since the beginning of their courtship and worked with both. The three formed a larger group of coworkers-turned-friends, weaving their lives together over time.

On the morning of the race, she recalls, O'Neal wasn't feeling well and moved slowly. Miraglia finished, then doubled back to join him and Loft, repeating a portion of the 4 miles so they could cross the finish line together.

"Larry was so glad he did it," she says.

After O'Neal died on March 4, Miraglia and daughter Annie Lytle wanted to help with funeral expenses. Lytle suggested selling a T-shirt (now sold out) with the motto "Live Like Larry." Designer Jon Deviny created artwork and Terrain arranged a limited print run, donating proceeds toward the memorial. Friends and family wore their shirts to the service on May 18.

"I hope someday I can be that giving of my energy and my time," Caro says. "Think about all the little things you can do for other people. Larry just did them."

Miraglia had hoped to do the Boulevard Race again with Larry this fall, but she's determined to continue in his memory. This time she's encouraging her colleagues at John L. Scott to join in.

"Who doesn't know someone going through cancer or who has gone through it?" she asks. "We're going to do it for Larry." ♦

Playwrights' Forum Festival @ Spokane Civic Theatre

Thu., June 13, 7:30 p.m., Fri., June 14, 7:30 p.m., Sat., June 15, 2 p.m. and Sun., June 16, 2 & 6 p.m.
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