Remembering Brian John Larson, advocate for accessible housing

Larson graduated from UC Berkeley and enjoyed music, power soccer and spending time in nature with friends and family.

Brian John Larson

Brian John Larson, 48, took his last breath in his home in Berkeley on Dec. 28. He lived a very adventurous life.

He was born on Feb. 29, 1972, in South Bend, Indiana. Since his father was in the military, there were many moves. Seaside, California, was Brian’s first taste of the ocean. As a toddler he loved running the shoreline with his tall daddy.

The small village of Mainz-Bretzenheim in Germany was the family’s first home in an overseas deployment. This is where Brian heard his first foreign language!

At the young age of 3, Brian attended German kindergarten. He was lavished with love from the principal and her husband. He readily adapted and learned German well.

The next move was to Munich in southern Bavaria. This time Brian was able to live in military housing. So very many friends and adventures awaited him. Trips to the mountains became a highlight for Brian and sparkling seas were a sight to behold.

Brian’s baby sister, Heather Tricia Larson, born in Munich, was a delight to him. He played with her often as toddlers and they both rode the same school bus when Brian was in high school and Heather in middle school. It was challenging for Heather to see her big brother struggle with muscular dystrophy.

After four years overseas, stateside was the next station — and a home in Aberdeen, Maryland. Brian reunited with his grandparents, aunts and uncles, but Aberdeen was a cultural shock for all. Brian struggled with the school system, but he was a young boy who adjusted well to change. To his delight, he discovered a friend next door whose mother was from Vietnam. Another language to be heard!

Shortly after Brian’s father was discharge from the army, the family’s civilian home became Hagerstown, Maryland. Brian flourished yet again. Ever the adventurer, he made friends quickly. Bike rides and exploring a friend’s underground tunnel occupied his time. During this time, Brian developed a love for music, especially playing the drums in concerts at Western Heights Middle School.

Clif Carter Jr. became Brian’s best friend. They had many adventures at his countryside home.

In 1983 Brian’s baby brother Joshua was born. Brian often joked with Josh how he was his younger older brother. One memory Josh shared was when Brian told him, “Always be yourself. Don’t let what others say about you get to you. Being weird and anti-normal is better than being normal.” In many ways they had a lot in common: both loved exploring and both did not want to “go with the crowd.”

In 1984, Brian won a regional award for Soap Box Derby, a youth racing program, and traveled to Akron, Ohio, he heard yet another foreign language from his cabin mate from Ireland!

Some ongoing health concerns arose in 1985. It was then that both Brian, age 13, and his mom were diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). A move to Sharpsburg, Maryland, proved to be the most difficult for Brian. He was leaving his childhood friends behind and entering a high school where bullying was prevalent. This is where Brian poured himself into his studies.

Determined to return to Hagerstown to attend North High, he came up with a plan. It would require him to work jobs after school so he could buy his own car. Despite the limitations of his disability, he pressed onward. He was relentless and in 1990 he graduated.

Late that summer, Brian endured two painful major surgeries due to muscular dystrophy.

In 1992 Brian moved to San Francisco to be with his close childhood friend, Clif. Returning to the East Coast in 1993, he enrolled at Hagerstown Community College. The next three years proved to be very hard for Brian. Leg braces were needed and getting up from desks and walking around caused endless frustrations. Still, Brian excelled in his studies. He graduated with an associate’s degree in computer science in 1998.

The West Coast called him again and he answered, attending Sacramento City College from 1999 to 2002, where he worked in the computer lab and tutored students in math.

Besides a love of learning, he had a desire to help others. Knowing how devastating it was to struggle in life, he was driven to reach out to others. It was a passion he pursued throughout his life.

Along with his ever-present love of music, Brian loved to play chess. It was while in Sacramento that Brian had his first of many bouts with pneumonia.

He had a very close relationship with his mom. She became his confidant and learned much from him as well! They had many late night conversations about his classes, his health, his friends and his challenges.

He was also close to his youngest uncle, Jim Finneran; they were less than four years apart. They explored five National Parks in California and visited the Grand Canyon. There were endless sites to see: the ocean, the mountains, the forest. It required lots of research for Jim to find accessible lodging and sites. But it was a highlight for Brian! He never tired of being with Jim or being in the great outdoors! Lake Tahoe was also a summer reprieve for Brian with others who had muscular dystrophy.

During Christmas time, Brian flew many times back to the East Coast to see his family! Those were very precious times of sharing and lots of love! It was a Finneran family tradition for all eight siblings and their parents to head to Indiana to celebrate Christmas! Although winter brought snow to the Midwest, being with the family and so many cousins was pure delight for Brian! He and his uncles would enjoy a guys game night. Gifts were exchanged. But undoubtedly the greatest gift to him was being with his family. Especially important to Brian was to see his beloved Grandma Finneran!

UC Berkeley was Brian’s ultimate goal. Taking a tour of the campus was a highlight for him as he needed accessibility. In 2002 his dream became real. Again the different nationalities, restaurants, languages and music made him feel at home. The Bay Area was his love! Using a power wheelchair made the accessible public transportation a necessity. This was so different from his life on the East Coast where living independently was close to impossible.

In 2005 Brian graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in public policy. He became an editor, but the job was short-lived due to even more health problems.

During a search for accessible housing, Brian discovered a new apartment building was planned. Being well aware of the needs of the disabled, Brian met with Panoramic Management. They were so impressed with his knowledge of the modifications needed that they asked him to come to Oakland to advocate for accessible housing. And he did. He was his own advocate as well as advocating for others.

In 2013 Brian loved being on the BORP Bay Earthquakes, a power soccer team for players in wheelchairs. Frequent visits to the parks in Berkeley and many concerts in Oakland were his favorites! Music was still his diversion from the challenges of muscular dystrophy.

Ashkenaz in Berkeley became a place where he met many new friends. Martha McEvoy of Berkeley became his closest friend for many years. Marshall Goldberg also went to concerts with Brian.

In 2016 he had another bout of pneumonia. This one sent him to the ICU. The really devastating one was in June 2018. This time it was much more serious and required Brian to go on a ventilator. Ther were many complications, many tests, many specialists, many surgeries. All along Brian’s Grateful Dead-loving friends from Ashkenaz were there for support: visiting him, advocating for him, doing his laundry, bringing good food and playing music for him. It was an excruciatingly hard time for Brian in many ways! Martha was the communication between Brian and his Mom on the East Coast.

Even though Brian was “vent dependent,” it became his goal to get back home to Berkeley. It was challenging, and he could have given up many times. But that was not in his DNA! After many long months of hospitalization and many skilled nursing facilities, he became yet again his own advocate. Finally, in August 2019, Brian came home to Berkeley. He was ecstatic!

It was not an easy transition — he required 24/7 caregivers and a nurse — but he was home. He could go outside. He could eat good food. He could go to his beloved Ashkenaz. Time to celebrate!

His uncle Jim brought his new wife, Laura, with him for a visit in September 2019. It was a very special time for them all!

The COVID-19 restrictions of 2020 were even more difficult as now Brian was inside and without his friends most of the time. Medical supplies were harder to find online. Caregivers had their concerns, as did Brian.

Online concerts were a help, but Brian missed his friends and family and being outdoors. Christmas 2020 was a joyous time for the Larson family. Brian’s parents had been continually video chatting with Brian and talking on the phone over the years, but now his siblings joined the video chat and Brian was able to talk with all his nieces and nephews. It was music to his parents’ ears to hear Brian laugh!

Brian’s parents were determined to visit him in spring 2021.

But it was not to be so. On Dec. 28, 2020, Brian made his final move to Heaven with Lord Jesus Christ. I have no doubt he is hearing many new foreign languages there. And the music must be glorious! He must be playing drums and dancing, too!

Brian made such an impact on so many lives and is immensely missed. There is a missing piece in his family’s hearts. But at last he struggles no more with muscular dystrophy.

Brian is preceded in death by his maternal grandparents, John E. and Dorothy E. Finneran; his paternal grandparents, Kenneth D. Larson and Dorothy M. Litherland; his niece Zarah Catherine Ann Robinson; and his cousin Melinda Finneran.

He is survived by his parents, John J. and Patricia Ann (Finneran) Larson; his sister, Heather (Michael) Robinson of Louisville, Kentucky; his brother, Joshua John Larson of Oshkosh, Wisconsin; his nephews, Aidan, Keegan and Brennan; his nieces Aveleen and Fineena Robinson; his uncles John F. Finneran of South Bend, Indiana, Frank (Suzy) Finneran of Naperville, Illinois, Tim (Jenny) Finneran of Mishawaka, Indiana, and Jim (Laura) Finneran of Goshen, Indiana; and his aunts, Barb (Earl) Simon of South Bend, Marie (Gary) Koontz of Elkhart, Indiana, and Michelle (Michael) Green of Constantine, Michigan.