SPOKANE — Myrna O’Leary, the longtime director of the Spokane Ag Expo and Pacific Northwest Farm Forum, will retire in March, ending a 30-year run.
She reflected on her pending retirement on a recent morning, after sending out exhibitor manuals and judging the annual photo contest for the last time.
“It’s that four-letter word, ‘last,’ that’s kind of like a knife,” she said.
O’Leary joined the Expo in August 1988 and plans to retire March 30.
“It’s just time,” she said. She plans to take some time off, perhaps to travel or spend time in her yard, and spend more time with family.
When she first joined the show, someone told her he didn’t expect it to last another five years.
“Not on my watch,” O’Leary thought. “I think the show is important to this region, because agriculture’s important to this region. ... I just thought it was important to keep that in the limelight, and I think the show does that.”
It takes work to keep the show running smoothly.
“Being the oldest of nine kids, organization comes to me kind of naturally,” she said. “I just know that what needs to be done, needs to be done. I’m very detail-oriented, probably sometimes to a fault.”
About 100 volunteers help with the Expo, including members of Greater Spokane Incorporated’s AgriBusiness Council, GSI staff and Visit Spokane. O’Leary has been known to “volunteer” her family members as well, she said with a chuckle.
The challenge each year is to bring something new to the show, she said.
“We try every year to bring what’s cutting edge or what is the top focus for the farmers, to bring them more information,” she said. “Every year, there’s new, whiz-bang things.”
Many of the new things introduced at the show, such as unmanned aerial vehicles or social media, go on to become part of everyday farm life.
O’Leary said she depends on members of the Expo and Farm Forum board and committees, many of whom are active in agriculture, to determine what will draw a crowd.
“It’s a team effort,” she said.
“Myrna has a gift for working with both the volunteers and exhibitors to make them feel special,” said Diahne Gill, program manager for the Farm Forum, who has worked alongside O’Leary more than 20 years. “She goes far above and beyond to accommodate exhibitor needs.”
Gill said O’Leary has meant a lot to all the people she’s worked with and will be missed.
“Myrna has focused her professional life on this for an extended time — her entire career — getting to know the nuts and bolts of the show,” said Todd Mielke, chief executive officer of GSI. “I think she has made a lasting impression producing one of the biggest shows in the Northwest.”
O’Leary said her favorite thing is all the friends she’s made at the show.
“Some exhibitors don’t exhibit every year, and then they call back and we end up talking for a half-hour about what we’ve both been up to before we ever talk about exhibiting,” she said. “That I’m going to miss.”