A survivor of the mean streets of Philadelphia, this man feeds hundreds and hundreds of people every Thanksgiving season in his Clearwater backyard. A tough Army veteran who ran covert operations in Korea in the ’60s, his eyes well up and his heart melts when kids peddle by on bicycles he gave them. As much as anyone else, 79-year-old O’Neal Larkin is responsible for putting the neighbor back in a ’hood which once ranked as one of Florida’s worst.
“There’re a lot of people who want to be involved. Like any city, inner or outer city, you can only sell drugs and stand on a corner so long before a new government comes and takes your place when you’re gone to jail or gone to prison,” says Larkin. He loves discussing the positive changes in his community, but refuses to take credit—not for North Greenwood’s outstanding 50 percent drop in crimes since 2015, nor for the marked improvements in health data tracking infant mortality, cancer and a host of other maladies which once ranked the area among the state’s worst.
“I’m not a legacy. I’ve just been a person who showed caring. I showed caring. If these people here recognize me, I don’t know who’s in that truck there. They are either going to blow a horn or wave or something. That’s just the way they are.” Standing at the MLK Jr. Community Center, in line with Greenwood neighbors to receive ice, water and food provided by the Scientology Volunteer Ministers Irma Disaster Relief team, Larkin says, “I am very happy. There is no squabbling, the children are well behaved. People are smiling. Thank you,” Larkin tells a Volunteer Minister.
Larkin has been giving out personal community awards for many years. Last year, he honored a woman who took it upon herself to keep the streets clean, picking up “all the trash that’s thrown by people who shouldn’t put it there,” smiles Larkin, proudly. You get the idea he would do that, too, if he had the time. Between advocating for his community with City leaders, the police, the courts, the media, Larkin stretches himself thin. Still, when he sees a good neighbor, he celebrates:
“I also have a gentleman who goes around and mows City property. He also mows elderly homes, he mows abandoned property and grass in the City parks on the weekend,” says Larkin, who gave him an award, too.
He has dozens of good people stories, like the man whose employees agreed to pool their money to bring him 35 bikes, then later called Larkin back:
“He said, ‘My employees said, “What good are bikes without helmets?” So they are going to kick in another $1,000 for helmets.’ When I walked in the store, I broke down. There are certain things that people do for you that are overwhelming …”
O’Neal Larkin won’t take credit for the enormous strides North Greenwood has taken since he has been here, but he can’t deny that his own personal love and support, more than bicycles and free turkey, have brought salvation and sunshine to Clearwater’s former ’hood. It’s safe to walk the streets at night, now, says Larkin, who walks them every day.
“I’m proud of this neighborhood right now. I’m proud of it,” he wants folks to know, as a truck drives by with a honk and a wave.