By Vicki Brown
COLUMBIA — Who are you? Where are you going? Who’s going with you? A meaningful and successful life is found in the answers to those questions, regardless of circumstances, John O’Leary believes.
The St. Louis native challenged attendees at the Missouri Baptist Foundation (MBF) eighth annual conference to evaluate their lives in light of their answers.
O’Leary shared how his answers to those questions have led him to success despite nearly dying from severe burns as a 9-year-old.
He had watched friends pouring gasoline on a sidewalk, striking a match and watching the spark and flames as the liquid burned away.
When O’Leary tried the same experiment in the family’s garage, fumes from a gas can exploded, setting the child and the family home aflame.
“Life happens in the blink of an eye,” he said, showing a slide of himself as a healthy, vibrant child.
“Then I found myself in an emergency room, dying,” he added. The next slide showed an unrecognizable boy with almost 100 percent of his body burned.
O’Leary learned a little more about himself and his family that day and throughout his struggle to survive. “We can always become great for others,” he said.
Each of his family members became great. His brother managed to beat down with a rug the 3-foot flames that shot from O’Leary’s body, enough to finally be able to carry him out of the house and roll him in lingering January snow. A sister overlooked the ruined body and held him close.
His younger sister braved smoke in the house three times to bring glasses of water, throwing the water into his face each time and “begging me to survive.”
While the boy thought his parents would be upset with him, both simply expressed their love and concern. And they were honest with him. “It’s easy to tell people what they want to hear,” he said.
When he saw his mother for the first time in the hospital, he asked her if he would die. She responded by asking if he wanted to die. When he said no, she replied, “You’ll have to fight like you’ve never fought before. You’ll have to take God’s hand.”
Find out who you are by looking backward and finding the greatness in yourself, he challenged his listeners.
“I knew we would survive; sometimes thriving means surviving first,” he said.
O’Leary challenged them to become great for others by sharing the challenges that have scarred their lives.
The second key to life success is to determine your direction, he said. Dare to dream about the future. While in the hospital, O’Leary dreamed of going home. After being released, he dreamed of returning to school — and of being accepted by classmates.
The fifth-grader returned to school with no fingers, with his hair in patches, with his body bloated by the trauma and in a wheelchair. The other students — all of them — welcomed him and cared for him.
O’Leary dreamed of earning a college degree, of restoring homes, of becoming a hospital chaplain, “of finding a girl who could see beyond my scars” and accomplished them all.
“We have dreams in this room…. I challenge you to buy into them,” he said.
Then, he said, discover who is accompanying you on your life journey and whom you are serving in return.
He pointed out several individuals who made a difference in his recovery, particularly “Voice of the Cardinals” Jack Buck, a longtime St. Louis radio announcer.
Buck visited O’Leary in the hospital, and then sent him a baseball autographed by Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith, offering to send a second one if O’Leary wrote a thank-you note for the first.
Despite the difficulty of writing without fingers, O’Leary did it, and Buck repeated the gift 60 times — each time with a different autograph — as motivation.
Once John was released from the hospital after months of treatment and rehabilitation, Buck fulfilled a promise by hosting “John O’Leary Day” at the ballpark.
When O’Leary graduated from Saint Louis University, he opened one of his gifts to discover the crystal baseball Buck received upon induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The card read: “John, this baseball means a lot to me. I want you to have it. I hope it will mean a lot to you.”
“It wasn’t the baseballs, but the time he had taken behind it,” O’Leary said. “It’s always the little things…those we choose to or not choose to do.
“By pouring ourselves into others, we become successful,” he said.
Currently, O’Leary serves as a chaplain at a children’s hospital and owns a real estate development company. He has also created Rising Above (rising-above.com), a not-for-profit organization to spawn volunteer opportunities in the St. Louis area.
His story is told in a book written by his parents, Denny and Susan O’Leary, and titled Overwhelming Odds.
In addition to O’Leary’s keynote address, the MBF provided information to clients at the Sept. 30 meeting at Woodcrest Church, Columbia.
“This conference was designed to give practical and technical assistance, to strengthen souls, clear vision and inspire mission,” noted MBF president James R. Smith.
The conference included three informational tracks and provided training for not-for-profit support staff.
Investment consultants Bill Hendrix and Robert Morris provided a market overview and reviewed the MBF’s conservative investment philosophy,” Smith noted. “Our diversified investment portfolios and current defense strategies are designed for long-term performance and recognize the cyclical nature of the market.”
The development track provided information to development officers and organizational heads on grant writing, gift charities and creative giving ideas.
The MBF also provided a track for pastors and ministers, which offered money management for church families, information on hiring and motivating staff and volunteers and an overview of healthcare ministries.
Above: John Koffman (left), member of First Baptist Church, Moberly, visits with John O'Leary following his presentation at the Missouri Baptist Foundation's annual conference in Columbia.