Larry Lassila, longtime Omak businessman, educator, orchardist, and most important, father and grandfather, died Nov. 17 while visiting the Grass Valley area of California. He was 82. His family announced his death with a tribute on the marquee of the Omak Theater, which he and his late wife Mary owned since 1976: “The Greatest Showman/Larry Lassila/ Goodbye Dad.”
He was known for his calm demeanor, endless patience, and determination as a do-it-yourselfer. He fixed everything and anything himself, from plumbing to electronics to vehicles. He instilled that value in his children, teaching his daughters how to change the spark plugs and oil in the family’s vintage pick-up. His interests were broad and varied. He was a talented photographer, Ham radio operator, amateur astronomer, voracious reader of everything from poetry to natural science and inveterate learner. Despite Larry’s numerous activities and interests, family always came first. Most apparent when organizing numerous family camping trips, offering a helping hand with current projects or giving sage advice on future endeavors.
As a teacher in local schools, and an employer of teen-agers at his movie theaters, Larry had a positive impact on the lives of many young people. It wasn’t unusual for former students or employees to approach him at community events like the Farmer’s Market and thank him for his guidance, even crediting him with enabling them to graduate.
Lawrence John Lassila was born in Virginia, Minn., Dec. 24, 1937, to Arney and Mary Alyce Lassila, the third of five children. During World War II, the family moved to Seattle, Wash. where Larry’s father worked for Boeing. Larry attended Catholic schools, graduating from O’Dea High School. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force, which included time in Japan.
He met Mary Garske at a dance and, after a long-distance courtship, they were married Sept. 14, 1963, in Seattle. Their first home was in Mountain View, Calif., where Larry worked as a technician at Stanford University while attending Foothills Junior College. Their first two children, Maria and Shawn, were born there. In 1967, they returned to Seattle where Larry completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington.
His first teaching job was at Chief Joseph Junior High School in Moses Lake, Wash. where the next two children, Amy and Arne, were born. During his job interview he was asked, “Do you shoot?” to which he answered, “Only with a camera.”
On April Fool’s Day, 1976, the Lassilas bought the Omak Theater and moved to Omak, where son John was born. Larry returned to teaching in the late 1980s, first as a substitute teacher in Omak, Okanogan, and the county juvenile detention center. Daughter Amy recalls walking into a class one day and discovering that her dad was the substitute teacher. She worried about what her fellow students would think of him and was relieved after class when they announced, “Your dad is so cool!” In 1992 he began a four-year stint teaching special education full-time at the Omak Middle School.
He went to northern California in 1996 to work with his brother, who owned two funeral homes. His ability to empathize with people in pain was particularly valuable in that work. He returned to Omak in 1998.
Over the years the Lassilas operated two other movie theaters, the Rio in Brewster and a drive-in theater in the Cashmere-Dryden area. In 2004, they opened a triplex theater in Omak, The Mirage. Unlike wife Mary, Larry was not a movie fan although he loved the intricacies of the business. The family claims that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was his all-time favorite, because it was the only movie he sat down to watch from beginning to end.
Mary died Sept. 27, 2011. Larry never fully retired. During a family gathering at Halloween, just weeks before he died, he took time to provide detailed advice to daughter Maria, who now manages the theaters. Throughout his semi-retirement, he enjoyed traveling in RVs, reading, and maintaining close contact with his three grandchildren.
The family remembers him having a sense of wonder regarding nature and life itself with his love for reading only furthering his desire for more learning. One of the many books he was reading just before his death was entitled ‘Mapping the Stars’, and his children like to think that’s what he’s doing now.
He is survived by special friend Linda Johnson of Applegate, Calif.; sister, Mary Gray (Gary), of Palo Alto, Calif.; children, Maria Lassila, of Omak, Shawn Lassila, of Pasco, Wash., Amy Lassila (Andrew Pottenger), of Seattle, Wash., Arne Lassila, of Omak; and John Lassila (Lorraine), of Omak; daughter-in-law, Lori Merritt, of Omak; and grandchildren, Jove, Carly and Bishop. He was preceded in death by his wife Mary; his parents; brothers, Joe, Phil and David; and granddaughter,d Mika Belle.
A celebration of life will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, please make a donation to the Okanogan County Historical Society.