John O’Leary is a man on fire (literally)By: Linda Leicht Springfield MO
The auditorium at Springfield Catholic High School (SCHS)was full, but you could have heard a pin drop as John O’Leary told the story of being a nine-year-old boy on fire.
That fire, set by the curious little boy himself, would burn 100 percent of his body, cost him his hands, and part of an ear, and send him on a journey that led him to stand in front of high school and middle school students to challenge them to make their lives matter.
The story of his injuries and recovery was riveting, punctuated with photos and jokes by the speaker. But, the moral of his story was even more riveting: He called students to live up to Christ’s example and be agents of change in their life and the lives of others.
First, he told them about the people who filled that role in his own life—his brother who beat out the flames that engulfed his little body, his disciplinarian father who expressed only love and pride after the fire, his mother who challenged him to want to live, the boy who stood up to a classmate who was bullying John for his disfigured hands, and the legendary Cardinals radio announcer Jack Buck who came to his bedside and never stopped being his friend.
O’Leary speaks at roughly 30 high schools every year, about a third of them Catholic, and to thousands of adults at corporate events. He has written books, and has a Website, JohnOLearyInspires.com, and a blog, all of which focus on inspiring others to live their lives to the fullest.
His talk at SCHS on Sept.21 was especially significant for him.
“I’ve spoken 1,500 times in my 10-year career,” O’Leary said. “Every time is a completely different experience. When I see people wipe tears or smiling broadly … I know something is resonating. To see that again today with middle schoolers and high schoolers, I’m deeply moved.”
Playing with fire
O’Leary’s story starts on a Saturday in 1987. His parents were both out of the house, so nine-year-old John decided to play with fire—literally. He had seen some boys throw a match onto a gasoline puddle and watched the flames dance. He made the big mistake of trying it himself, in the family garage. First, he lit a piece of cardboard on fire, then picked up the gasoline can, planning to “pour just a little bit of gasoline on the fire.” Before the liquid even came out of the can, the fumes ignited, creating a massive explosion that picked up O’Leary and threw him against the far side of the garage. Covered in flames, he ran—out of the garage and into the front door of the house.
“I was praying for a hero,” he told the students. Instead, he saw his 17-year-old brother, Jim, “a guy who was always mean to me.” Jim grabbed a small rug and began beating down the flames, burning himself in the process.
He goes on with his story, showing pictures that are hard to look at, but sharing a tale of tragedy to grace. It is about asking his mother if he is going to die and her asking him if he wants to die. When he tells her that he wants to live, his mother tells him how: “Take the hand of God and take the journey with him. Fight every step of the way.”
O’Leary turned to the young people and gave them a similar challenge. “When you leave today, ask yourself, ‘Do I want to live?’ … Do you want to prosper and have a full life?” Next, he told the crowd to think of one person in their life who has inspired them to be the best person they can be.
Then he did a surprising and amazing thing. He sat down at a piano and, with fingerless hands, he played “Amazing Grace,” because his mother insisted that he continue taking piano lessons from her.
No one expected the boy to live. His injuries were devastating, with 87 percent of his body suffering third-degree burns. With a tube in his throat to reach his seared lungs and his eyes swollen shut, O’Leary was tied to the bed to control his body’s convulsions.
On Sunday afternoon, just one day after his life was permanently altered, O’Leary heard someone come into his room. He recognized the sound of a chair scraping the floor as it pulled up close to his ear. He recognized a voice he had heard hundreds of times on the radio.
“Kid, wake up. You are going to live. You are going to survive. Keep fighting.”
Then he heard the famous Jack Buck, his hero, step out of the room and sob.
O’Leary pointed to the crucifix above the auditorium door.
“You have something that sets you apart from all of Springfield,” he told the youth gathered. “It hangs over the door … the cross with the crucified Christ. Remember the shortest verse in the Bible, ‘Jesus wept.’”
Almost every day over the next five months, Buck continued to come back to his room, repeating the same message. A month after he left the hospital, Buck arranged for John O’Leary Day at the ballpark and even interviewed him on the radio.
Despite the continuing pain and the scars, the photo that flashed up on the gymnasium scoreboard at SCHS was of a smiling young John, his eyes lit up with joy.
“I learned what Christ knows—you take both the good and the bad together,” O’Leary said.
Buck continued his support of the burned boy, remaining a friend until his death in 2002. It was Buck who encouraged O’Leary to learn to write again despite the loss of his fingers. He sent him a baseball signed by the great Ozzie Smith along with a note that said, ‘If you want a second baseball, all you have to do is write a thank you note to the guy who sent the first one.”
Even holding a pencil was a challenge, but that promise was enough encouragement to convince the boy to try. He wrote that note and got a second baseball with the same message attached. In all, he got 60 baseballs.
“It changed my world,” O’Leary said.
John O’Leary was able to return to St. Clement’s Elementary School and went on to high school and college. When he graduated from college, Buck gave him the most precious ball of all—the crystal baseball he was awarded when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame the same year as the fire, 1987.
“His gift of love allowed me to do so many things in life,” O’Leary said. “We are perfect images of God. Through Jack’s love, I realized that.”
When he concluded his talk, the silence in the audience ended as the students and adults broke into thundering applause and gave him a standing ovation.
“Listening to Mr. O’Leary speak, I feel that God really does have a plan for each and every one of us,” Anna Rader said, a junior at SCHS. “God’s plan was for him to come back, and now he is here inspiring others. That was God’s plan for him.”