When John O’Leary was 9 years old, his Town & Country home caught fire – and, while he did not realize it at the time, so did his life.
John says all he could think about, as he watched flames leaping from the garage roof and smoke pouring out of the windows and front door of his home, was that he had ignited those flames.
In the manner of a typical, curious boy, John had tried an experiment in his parents’ garage – one that went terribly wrong. He wanted to see fire dance, the way it had danced on the concrete for some older boys in the neighborhood. So, alone in his parents’ garage, he tried to pour gasoline onto a lit piece of cardboard. What happened next was unexpected and life-altering.
The five-gallon gas can John was holding exploded – throwing John against the opposite wall and setting him on fire.
Burned from his head to his toes, he was not expected to live and he might not have if it had not been for the courageous actions of his brother and sisters, mom and dad. His brother, Jim, put out the fire and called 911. His sister Amy, just 11 at the time, held his burned body tight in her arms and wouldn’t let go. His 7-year-old sister, Susan, ran repeatedly into the burning house to get cups of water to pour over his head, helping to spare his face. His mother was perhaps the most courageous of all, forcing her son to do difficult things for himself rather than relying on the compassion of others.
In the hospital, just hours after the explosion, with John frightened and in extreme pain, his mother asked him: “John, do you want to die? It’s your choice, not mine?”
In his book, “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life,” John writes that when he “was teetering on the brink of death” his mom “courageously walked to the edge of the cliff and looked over it” with him.
“It wouldn’t take much for me to give up, let go, and fall down into the abyss,” he writes. “But there was an alternative path, a way forward. She pointed away from the cliff. In the other direction was a huge mountain. It looked impossible to climb. But she said that I could do it. That I could choose to turn away from the edge and take small, shuffling steps, up the hill, back to life.”
In his parents’ book “Overwhelming Odds,” his mother wrote that after John said that he did not want to die, she told him: “Then John, you are going to have to fight as hard as you ever have in your life. You are going to have to run as fast as you ever have on the soccer field. You are going to have to give it your all and you won’t be alone. Know that Daddy and I and Jesus will be with you each step of the way.”
A community’s strength
John had the support of a community that stretched around the globe. Get well cards arrived daily from strangers offering their encouragement, including President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and one special visitor that would make any loyal Cardinals fan green with envy.
“The day after I was burned I was laying in the hospital bed, unable to do anything. I literally could not see, or speak, or move. Really the only ability I still had was the ability to hear. And Jack Buck walked into the room,” John says. “Here’s this great Hall of Fame announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals, my childhood hero, and he comes in, sits down and starts encouraging me that when I get out of the hospital we’re going to have a John O’Leary Day at the ballpark. We remained friends until he died. He was an incredible mentor, an incredible friend and a huge gift to me in my life.”
When John graduated from Saint Louis University, Jack dropped off a gift for him. Inside a beautifully wrapped box was a crystal baseball – Jack Buck’s Hall of Fame ball. The accompanying note read:
“Kid, this means a lot to me. I hope it means a lot to you, too. This is the baseball I received when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s made of crystal. It’s priceless. Don’t drop it! Your friend, Jack.”
Of that gift, John says: “If your father gave it to you it would be overwhelming, but to receive it … I mean to provide it to a 22-year-old kid that has not accomplished anything, that has no clue what to do with generosity like that – it’s just an amazing gift and he did it just out of the goodness of his heart.”
But what Jack gave, John felt unworthy to receive, so he hid the ball in his sock drawer. In “On Fire,” he explains that he thought the ball would make people ask questions and he wasn’t ready to share his scars or his story back then.
“But light always overcomes darkness,” he writes. “Sometimes it just takes time to chase the shadows.”
For a long time, John chose to hide his story. It wasn’t until his parents wrote “Overwhelming Odds” that John confronted his story head on and even then he did not want to do so. He asked his parents not to write the book. They didn’t listen. That was good, because in reading his parents’ book, John realized something.
“It just grabs my heart,” he says today. “It revealed to me, for the first time, several things. One, that it’s not only me that got burned, but my brother and my four sisters got emotionally burned. And my mom and dad went through their own tragedy.
“It wasn’t just my cross to bear. We all went through a lot. But I think even more than that realization was to understand that all that bad stuff – the amputations and the skin grafts and the scars and the wounds and the pain led perfectly to where I was in my life – and then, instead of it being something negative, it actually was this huge, massive positive transformed for the better in my life going forward.”
After his parents shared their story, John found the courage to share his. Today, he speaks to an average of 50,000 people each year all over the world. When asked to name the most remote place in which he has shared his story, he says, “Affton;” then laughs.
“That’s hilarious,” he says. “No, seriously, the most remote place I’ve ever spoke in would be a little town in the northwestern part of Australia, called Broome. It’s just a little beach community. I spoke to a leadership organization there and it was absolutely stunning, a part of the world I would have never seen otherwise.”
It’s a glimpse into the joy John finds in his “radically inspired life.” It’s a joy he wants to help others discover.
“I want people to own their lives,” John says, “and to realize the remarkable miracle that presents itself to them every day of their lives in the beautiful, in the tragic, in the mundane, in everything.
“I want them to know that every moment is bright with possibility and the only person that can finally own that at the end of the day is them, and in doing that not only do they become more joy-filled, but they’re able to more effectively and authentically celebrate that great gift with others.”
It’s why he wrote his book.
The real heroes
“This book, ‘On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life,’ you could read it as a leadership book or an inspirational book, but there’s no doubt that it’s also a parenting book,” John says.
The conversation has shifted to John’s mom, who played a critical role in helping him to become the man he is today.
His book is full of examples of his mom’s startling strength, like when she made him pick up his fork and feed himself, despite hands wrapped in bandages that resembled boxing gloves.
“If John is hungry, he’ll feed himself,” his mother is quoted as saying.
John says that at the time he was mad, but looking back on it he saw what a courageous stand his mom took then.
“She had a profound impact on my life and still does,” John says.
The other strong woman in his life is Beth, his wife.
“She is the best thing that has ever come into my life,” John says. “We met in college. I asked her out repeatedly because I fell in love with her beauty – both inside and outside beauty – right away. She’s just an amazing woman.
“We were friends for three years before eventually she asked me out. We have been married now for 13 years, we have four children. We’ve got a great marriage and she’s awesome. I feel blessed every day to be married to her.”
Getting to know John’s family – his wife and children, his brother and sisters, his mom and his dad, who is “a born optimist with a strong work ethic and faith that has grown as he’s moved through life” – these are the bonus features of John’s book, shared amid the advice he offers for living a radically inspired life.
“My goal was to share an autobiography as vulnerably as possible that primarily celebrates the people who supported me,” John shares. “So often, biographies talk about how one individual overcame this hurdle and then that hurdle, and aren’t they great? They might be great. But what I wanted to do in this book is show the reader how incredible all of the people around me were and are.
“I want readers to identify with the heroes in this book.”
Plus, John just enjoys keeping it real.
“No matter how the world knows you, in your family, you’ll always be the third born or the oldest – just an ordinary kid,” he says. “When you’re home, it’s ‘elbows off the table, Larry!’ You know?”
He laughs. He’s Larry, we all are.
Beauty in your own back yard
Home for John has always been St. Louis, where his family and favorite sports teams are.
“So I love not only my family and Cardinal baseball and the shadow and the glimmer of the Arch, but I also think we live in one of the greatest cities in our country and we forget to realize it most days,” John says. “I’m here not only because my mom and dad are here and Beth’s mother is still here, but because we love St. Louis. We love the culture. We love the fabric and the character of the midwest.
“We love the history of our home town, and part of my job is to remind our businesses and the families that live here how absolutely blessed we are and maybe it’s time that we act like it.”
John says moving people to action is the goal behind all of his endeavors from “On Fire” to his website [www.johnolearyinspires.com] to his public speaking appearances to his blogs and vlogs.
“We don’t live accidentally. Purpose is powerful. I think choosing to live is the first step. Then, I think the next most important choice is to be on fire, motivated from a place of great love,” John says. “The world, I think, opens up as soon as we open up our eyes as to the beauty in our life.
“I know that sounds cliché or trite maybe, but many people go on the road seeking themselves when the reality is you’ve got to do it first in your own back yard. Then in discovering it there, then you can hop on planes or anything else and realize that the beauty travels with you.”