Larry Noonan, longtime leader of AWARE Inc., died Wednesday at age 68.
By all accounts, Noonan was a visionary in his field.
In February of 2018, Noonan retired from AWARE, an Anaconda-based organization that serves people with mental-health and developmental disabilities through, among other things, job-skills training, education and employment opportunities.
The organization and its over 1,000 employees have programs throughout the state, including in all of Montana’s population centers — places like Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Missoula. The organization works with thousands of clients each year and operates 44 residential programs across Montana.
Noonan served AWARE for over 30 years.
Noonan in previous news stories said that the landscape of his field looked very different when he began working for AWARE in 1988. It was a time of transition, he said, during which governmental and other agencies began rethinking the ways they were serving people with mental-health and developmental disabilities.
People in the field began looking less toward large, centralized facilities, he explained, and instead toward smaller, more numerous programs. The idea was that people with disabilities would be better off if they could live closer to home, attend schools within their communities and be productive community members – an idea that Noonan championed.
Pat Noonan, Noonan’s son, worked alongside his father at AWARE for around 15 years and is now a contractor for the organization in the realm of government relations.
Pat Noonan noted the growth of the organization under his dad’s leadership, which had about 15 employees in 1988 and is now one of the largest providers in the state of its kind.
“A lot of AWARE’s success was due to just (Larry’s) sheer will,” said Pat Noonan.
That was an opinion shared by several of Larry Noonan’s colleagues who spoke with The Standard.
Leighann Fogerty Knight described Noonan as someone who, when he had a vision, pursued it relentlessly, with a laser-like focus. He was strong-willed, she said, and accomplished a lot because of it.
But most of all, Knight said, Noonan rooted for the underdog and was a champion for one of Montana’s most underserved populations — people with disabilities.
“He was their advocate,” she said, noting that Noonan, taking a client-centered approach, took the time to talk to clients about their needs from their points of view.
“He wanted them to live a life of their choice — of their hopes and dreams.”
Not, she said, of the hopes and dreams of doctors and experts.
Before becoming AWARE’s chief executive officer, Noonan held positions as the bureau chief of the Montana State Developmental Disabilities Division. Before, he served several other organizations across the state.
According to organizational lore, while serving as bureau chief for the state’s Developmental Disabilities Division, Noonan was deep in thought one night, contemplating his future goals.
“All of a sudden he was jolted back to reality,” AWARE’s website reads. “A lightning bolt had just crashed into his backyard right in front of him. This was the sign he needed. He turned in his resignation the next day.”
After that, the narrative states, he began working for AWARE.
Pat Noonan said his father took the helm as AWARE’s CEO because he believed providers in the human services field could do better. He went on to say that his dad also strove to make employees better and constantly reminded staff about why everyone did the work that they did.
Multiple people who spoke with The Standard said Noonan could be direct at times and sometimes a difficult boss, but it was because he cared deeply for clients and was passionate about improving the lives of people with disabilities. He simply believed it was the right thing to do. It was an approach, they said, that got things done.
Matt Bugni, current AWARE CEO, is a former finance manager for Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, and he says Noonan’s passion gave him a lot of headaches while he was working at the state. Noonan, he said, was always pushing for better outcomes for clients and disadvantaged people, which sometimes put the former CEO at odds with budget-minded bureaucrats.
In all, Bugni described Noonan as “an unapologetic leader” with a big heart.
During his career, Noonan was appointed to serve on many committees and councils including the Governor’s Board of Visitors, the Montana Early Childhood Development Council, the Montana Mental Health Oversight Committee, the Montana Youth Initiative, the Developmental Disabilities Division Contract Advisory Committee, and many others. He was also the recipient of many awards, which are too numerous to list here.
While serving AWARE, Noonan oversaw the establishment of AWARE’s Center for Excellence, a $3.3 million, 8,248-square-foot school for kids who struggle with mental-health, developmental and learning disabilities, at 200 N. Polk Street in Anaconda, and the Enterprise Learning Center, an educational facility in Billings that serves children with autism, among many more accomplishments.
In September 2018, the education facility in Anaconda was renamed in Noonan’s honor as the Lawrence P. Noonan Center for Excellence.
During a celebration commemorating the renaming, Jack Haffey, AWARE's board chair, remarked on the longevity of Noonan’s career.
“That by itself is something to celebrate,” said Haffey. “In many ways, this school is a fitting symbol of the mission and vision that Larry had. He always had the belief that the best place to serve people is in their communities, as close to their homes as possible.”
Haffey said Friday that Noonan was often quick to point out that AWARE’s success wasn’t just the work of one person but of many.
In all, Noonan pushed the boundaries so that people with disabilities could live their fullest lives.
“Larry like all people was unique,” he said. “But Larry’s uniqueness was just so special.”