The Richest Man in Town

It's a Wonderful Life from Wikicommons

One of the final scenes of Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” occurs when George Bailey, having been shown how truly full and blessed his life has been, is toasted by his younger brother: “A toast to my big brother George: the richest man in town.” The twist of the beloved movie is that, even in his darkest moments, George Bailey really had a wonderful life—he just didn’t realize it.

George Bailey is, of course, a fictional character. Today, however, I wish to honor a flesh-and-blood man—a man whom I was fortunate to count as a dear and treasured friend. As many attorneys in Spokane are aware, Ryan McNeice, one of the founding partners of McNeice Wheeler, PLLC, died on April 20 from cancer. Like George Bailey, Ryan had a loving wife and family, the respect and admiration of all who knew him, and a community that was positively impacted by him in more ways than can possibly be counted.

There is an important difference, however, between George Bailey and Ryan McNeice: unlike George Bailey, Ryan always knew he led a “wonderful life.” He was fully aware of how fortunate he was to be married to Sarah, and the father of Olivia and Elliott. Ryan took strength and pride in his law firm. He thrived in his partnership with Becki Wheeler and took delight in the top-notch legal services provided by the attorneys and staff on their team. While George Bailey thought of his own workplace as “a cheap penny-ante Building and Loan,” the McNeice-Wheeler team is anything but “penny ante.” Ryan truly loved being an attorney; it radiated on his face whenever he spoke about his most recent case.

While George’s youthful exuberance and humor waned as the years progressed, Ryan remained eternally optimistic, energetic, and oh-so-funny. His sense of humor was legendary and self-deprecating, and his laughter was infectious. Ryan could always be found in a crowded room by simply following the roar of laughter.

As the WSBA observes Well-Being Week in Law, Ryan’s life reminds me of the value of investing in the lives of the people around us. Put simply, the billable hours were always there for Ryan, but the time he spent with his family and friends is what really made a difference. His death, meanwhile, reminds me that it is healthy to grieve when we lose a loved one.

As I stepped into the Spokane afternoon sunshine after leaving an event at Gonzaga University School of Law last week, I reflexively reached into my pocket to grab my cell phone to text Ryan. As I did so, a feeling of realization and intense grief washed over me. It’s a feeling familiar to everyone grappling with the death of someone they care about. Rather than ignore or suppress that grief, however, we can acknowledge it, and take inspiration from the life of our loved one to live our lives in a meaningful fashion.

I dearly miss my friend. I know I am not alone. Our Washington legal profession is stronger for his service, his clients were blessed for his advocacy, and our lives were brighter for his existence. Ryan truly was “the richest man in town.”