By Julia M. Johnson
John O’Leary is proof that a human being can thwart inhuman odds. He’s made it a calling to show meeting groups how they can do the same.
Thirty-year-old O’Leary is a St. Louis native and speaker who travels extensively to deliver his message, one that stops audiences in their tracks and helps them place their own lives in stark perspective. It’s a message of encouragement and adaptability that makes people say, “If this man can rise from personal calamity to personal success, I can certainly recycle my life to reach my own goals.”
As a young boy experimenting with fire in 1987, O’Leary unintentionally set off an explosion that threw him several feet and severely burned his entire body. Lying in a hospital bed, unrecognizable due to the burn damage, O’Leary was given a grim one-half of one percent chance of survival by his doctors. But some people choose not to be a victim despite seemingly inconquerable obstacles, and with the help of some inspirational mentors, O’Leary became one of those survivors.
Several months and a number of surgeries later, O’Leary returned to the world outside the hospital. He was amazed to find that instead of recoiling at his scarring and injuries, his young classmates showed him caring and support. “I couldn’t do anything for myself physically,” he says. “The other kids helped me with everything.” Their concern, and the dedicated work of O’Leary’s doctors and nurses, began to awaken in him the idea of finding inspiration in others.
One of the most compelling factors in his recovery was the involvement of a celebrated St. Louisan now departed. O’Leary lay in the hospital, unable to speak or move, his eyelids swollen shut. He was fighting unbearable pain, his fingers had to be amputated, and his body had swollen to twice its normal size. Surgeons later had to cut into the webbing of his hands to create new digits where his fingers used to be.
“Into that darkness, teetering between hope and despair, came a voice I recognized,” O’Leary says. “It was Jack Buck. He said, ‘Kid, you’re going to live.’” O’Leary’s tragic story had gotten media attention, and Buck had heard about him from former Cardinals second baseman Red Schoendienst.
“Once you pull through, we’re going to celebrate your victory with a ‘John O’Leary Day’ at the ballpark,” Buck told the young patient.
“I bought in, and I worked toward that goal. It kept me going in the darkness,” O’Leary says. “When Jack was out of town, he would talk about me on the radio. He knew I’d be listening.” Two weeks after O’Leary’s release from the hospital, his day at the ballpark came true. He couldn’t hold a hot dog or catch a foul ball, but the day was magical nonetheless.
Later, O’Leary received an autographed Ozzie Smith baseball with a note from Buck saying, “If you want the next one, write a thank-you note to the guy who signed this one.” Then a second ball came, signed by another player, with yet another note from Buck. Sixty baseballs later, O’Leary was re-learning the use of his hands.
His family stood by him as well, encouraging him to fight, willing him to survive. “They had the vision and courage to make me come back for years of reconstructive surgeries, often against my will,” he says. “They realized that there’d be light at the end of the tunnel, and that they could be part of something beautiful, though there would be terrible pain in the interim. They are my leaders.” Today, O’Leary and his wife, Beth, have two sons of their own. He has a college degree, has started and run successful businesses, and works as a hospital chaplain when he’s not on the speaking circuit.
As a professional presenter, O’Leary delivers messages of encouragement and personal improvement to about 100 groups a year, with a client list that includes Saint Louis University, the Young Presidents Organization, Citimortgage and the Salvation Army. He addresses a wide range of gatherings, from students to CEOs. “It ends up that I am not the speaker, my story is,” O’Leary says. “It reveals that we can have the same impact on others that my family and friends had on me.”
O’Leary says a quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche often carries him through: “When you know your ‘why,’ you can endure any ‘how.’” He helps audiences find their own “why,” then helps them flesh out how they’re going to move past psychological barriers and advance toward their goals.
He customizes his presentations depending on his audience, but in general, his message is one of freedom from fear of failure. “I relate the idea of my physical therapy to people’s struggles to achieve their goals,” he says. “It’s so painful, it’s so dreaded, but as a result of it, we can grow wildly and get where we need to be. There’s a freedom in letting these pains happen.”
O’Leary educates his audiences about the “Phoenix factor,” a concept that illustrates how people can rise above their difficulties and mental paralysis to work toward positive goals, by embracing challenges and channeling them into growth. He’s written books and magazine articles on his ideas for personal enrichment, and publishes a regular newsletter.
O’Leary teaches his listeners to be lifelong learners and stretch past their comfort zones in ways they may be afraid to – and many have taken courage from his words. He tells the story of a CEO who was wavering about purchasing another company, but then talked to a friend who had heard O’Leary speak. “The friend convinced him he needed to ‘stretch’ and buy the company,” he says. “Another lady had an autistic child, and she said that before she heard me speak, she had never really seen the positive in her son. After hearing my presentation, she stretched her thinking to realize he was a blessing to the family, and she resolved to change her attitude.”
O’Leary encourages his audiences to choose their attitudes and actions on purpose, to invest in themselves, and to look for their own “Phoenix” moments in their daily lives. “Every single day, there are going to be small tragedies like traffic or the economy – or that phone call that says the cancer has returned,” he says. “Life is full of challenges, but success is achievable. It’s something we share. It’s our common experience.”
(Hear John speak at the Missouri Meetings & Events 2008 St. Louis Regional Expo − PLANit GREEN − March 24-25. To attend this event, register online at www.MissouriMeetings-AndEvents.com)