Introduction: I'm Brian Lord and on the show today, we have John O'Leary as he shares his story of survival from a fire that left him with burns over 100 percent of his body, what legendary baseball broadcaster Jack Buck did for him and what it was like to return to the Cardinals Busch Stadium.
Brian Lord: John O'Leary is a remarkable person. Just what he's overcome and that story is amazing in itself, but what he has done to not just change himself but the lives of people around him, how he always highlights others is just an amazing thing. This interview, which he does, we joke around a bit- He hosts a podcast- He's much better than I am... But he just does so much to bring out that story and I can guarantee that you'll be moved, you'll be inspired. So I asked John, could you tell us about your story, how it started that one morning with you as a child and how your life changed?
John O'Leary: So I'm a Midwestern guy and I grew up in a wonderful neighborhood. But I saw little boys older than I playing with fire and gasoline. And I figured if these little boys can do that and get away with it, so can I. And on a Saturday morning in 1987, January 17th, my father's at work. My mother is out with a couple of siblings. I walked into their garage. I bent over a can of gasoline. Try to pour a tiny bit on top, Brian, and what, of course, happened was this massive, mighty transformative explosion that split the five-gallon can of gasoline in two. It picked me up and launched me 20 feet against the far side of the garage, set the garage on fire, set my world on fire and it changed everything. You know, at one moment, I was a perfectly happy and healthy and candidly, extraordinarily good looking 9-year-old little boy.
Brian Lord: [Laughing]
John O'Leary: And then it all changed. And I think that that's actually one of the stories that connect with folks around the world, is that we all have endured that unexpected change. And then what? Right. And then what do you do with it?
Brian Lord: Yeah. And what was the media aftermath? What goes through your mind or what happened at that time?
John O'Leary: Well, there's a lot there in that question, but the very first thing is going back to training. What were we all taught to do for it if we're ever on fire? What are you supposed to do, Brian?
Brian Lord: Stop, drop and roll.
John O'Leary: Yes, right. Correct. But what do you actually do when you're on fire?
Brian Lord: I'm sure you just run. [Laughing]
John O'Leary: You panic! And we could riff on that for your entire podcast because the reality is this: We train up there right up in your head, that's we're almost all training takes place. But you lead and you serve. And I think you sell and you buy and you inspire. And ultimately you live from a much more sacred source. We need training. We need our heads. We need our minds. And yet, if it's not connected down to our hearts, I think it's hollow. But a part of my role as a speaker and as a leader is to connect the two so that they become one like undivided. But that day for me, I panicked. As a nine-year-old, I ran for my life. The result of this is I ended up with burns on 100 percent of my body, and 87 percent of those were third degree. Laying in a hospital bed that morning in the emergency room, I hear my father's voice down the hall. He's kind of shouting at some nurse. "Where is my boy, John?" You know, I hear the roar of the lion coming toward me. And my thought is a nine-year-old was, "Oh, my gosh, the old man has come to finish me off. It's all over. He's gonna be furious!" And this nurse brings my dad back into the room. She probably should have called security, but she brings them back into the room. He pulls back the curtain and this old angry guy- probably forty-one years older. So he walks in, points down and then he says to me, John, look at me when I'm talking to you. So I look up at my dad. You know, he's a business owner and a veteran. So I look at my dad and then he says, "I have never been so proud of anybody in my entire life. And my little buddy-" Then he goes, "You look at me when I'm talking to you! I love you. I love you. I love you." And I remember seeing my dad cry. I wasn't sure what was going on. And I shut my eyes and remember thinking, "Oh my gosh, nobody told my dad what happened!" You know, like "He's got no clue. He's got no clue. I just burned down his house, man!" And then for me, Brian, I remember thinking, "I wonder if I can get away with this. Maybe I can pull this thing off." But for the parents listening or for the aunties and uncles or anybody who's ever loved something or someone more than themselves listening, you realize yeah, dad knew what happened, but he also realized what mattered. And tragedy and difficulty have a wonderful ability to wake us up to what matters at work and in life. And that day, my dad was fully awake and he's never look back.
Brian Lord: And I know your mom, too- I love the story of what she did and how she challenged you that day and in a tough circumstance.
John O'Leary: So my mom and dad we're having this call right now. Last night we celebrated their 50th anniversary.
Brian Lord: Oh, wow! Congratulations!
John O'Leary: There's no doubt, man. And my dad had Parkinson's disease for 28 years. My mother's been through all kinds of storms. Some everybody knows about, many that no one will ever find out about. But she just keeps weathering these storms. Well, how? She's tough. She's just an awesome, loving, bold woman. She's a role model and one of my heroes. I came into the hospital on January 17th. My father was the first one in the room. But right behind my dad was my mom, totally ill-equipped and unprepared for what she's about to see. A little boy that she'd left earlier that morning now lying in this hospital bed dying. She walks over to me, she takes my right hand in hers. She pats my bald head- and I get emotional sharing this because I usually don't share this in life events- But she passed my bald head and she says, "Baby, I love you. I love you so much." And I remember looking up and saying, "Mom, knock it off with the love. You know, like, enough. Dad got that covered. Am I going to die?" And when I asked the question, my assumption was my mother would pat me on the back of the head and say, "Naby, you are fine. We will get you out of here today and we're gonna swing through Steak n' Shake on the way home. You're gonna be fine, though." That's what I thought I wanted. But instead, Brian, what she gave, which I think is much more important, was the truth, which requires audacity and boldness and I think a great amount of love. She looked back at me and she said, "Baby, do you want to die? Because that's your choice. It's not mine." I remember looking up like "What was she talking about?" But I said, "No, mom, I don't want to die. I want to live!" And her response was, "Good. Then, Baby, take the hand of God. You walk that journey with him, but you fight. You fight as you have never fought before. Your father and I will be with you every step along the way. But you've got to want this thing. You've got to fight for this thing. You've got to want to own it, John." And Brian, I think what she was teaching me that day was it's not enough for someone to come in with platitudes or false promises or a little bit of vague hope. We need to take accountability in our struggles, but also our goals toward our desires and our dreams and our work and our relationships and our lives. And it's something I learned as a 9-year-old. And I think it's something we all need to be reminded of from time to time and our journeys going forward. You've got to fight for it if you really want it.
Brian Lord: How did you apply that as a 9-year-old?
John O'Leary: You apply it every day. I'm 41 and applying it still today in my walk, not only professionally, but personally. Relationships are hard. I've been married myself 15 years. We are now parenting together four babies. My dad has Parkinson's disease as I'm guiding him forward. I'm trying to love my mom as effectively as I can. I've grown a speaking business and a podcast business, writing books. It can be hard, but ultimately, remember in life it's about something bigger than you. Victor Frankl wrote "When you know your 'why,' you can endure 'anyhow.'" When you know your "why." When you realize what is going on in your role in the solution here, you can endure "anyhow." And so how I applied it was whether it was physical therapy or OT- occupational therapy- blood transfusions, bandage changes, whatever it may have been as a child to fight through it, to believe that it's not going to be someone else coming in to fix me. They will support. They will help. They will guide. They will encourage. But at the end of the day, we, too, must own it. We've got to own our part in the solution.
Brian Lord: You've talked a lot about the people that have been such a huge support to you. Who are some of those people after your parents that came in and made an impact on your life?
John O'Leary: I wrote a book and ran out of pages talking about these folks and what I learned from them and what I think they're teaching each of us in our lives on how to be better leaders and how to be better servants, how to be better guided at work and beyond. One of my favorite examples and really there are many to pull from. But one of my favorites came into my life just one day after I got burned. I got burned on a Saturday. I'm laying in a hospital bed on Sunday. I'm stretched out. I can't see. My eyes are swollen shut. I can't move. I'm tied down to a hospital bed and I can't talk because my lungs were burnt. So I'm completely unable to do anything except dream and hope and feel and hear. And as a little boy who grew up in the Midwest in the mid-eighties, the one thing maybe more than anything else that I love to listen to was baseball. And my team was the St. Louis Cardinals. The voice of the St. Louis Cardinals back then was a guy named Jack Buck. Jack Buck is a Hall of Fame announcer, a Hall of Fame human being, the father of a guy named Joe Buck, who himself is a phenomenal guy, an announcer. I never met Jack Buck before. He is a celebrity. John O'Leary and his family are not. We are an ordinary family. I'm laying in this hospital bed by myself in utter darkness, dying. My door opens up, footsteps walk in, a chair comes across the floor, and then I hear the voice of Jack Buck in my room with me gently touching my head, and he's saying to me, "Kid, kid. Wake up, wake up. You are going to live. You are going to survive. And when you get out of here, we are going to celebrate. We'll call it John O'Leary Day at the ballpark." And then loud and clear, he says to me, "Kid? Are you listening?" I don't respond, so he says, "Good. Keep fighting." You know, Brian, that's a conversation I had thirty-one years ago and it's one I remember perfectly. Three plus decades later, I think as much as anything a doctor or a nurse or parents or anybody else may have done or said for me back then, that one visit by Jack Buck did more than anything else to shape the arc of my life. I think too frequently in life we forget the power of one. Like, the ability we have to guide and encourage someone else to take the next step forward in their journey. And that day he came and proved it. Changed my world, was told by a nurse on the way out that there was no chance the little boy was gonna survive. Not like "It's not looking good, Jack." The nurse said to him very clearly: "There is no chance." And that night he goes home, he asks his favorite question, which is "What more can I do?" And we could spend all day talking about this question and what it means for us to do life better afterward each day. "What more can I do?" But the following day, Jack Buck comes back to this hospital into a little boy's life that he had never met before until the day before. Comes back in and says, "Kid, wake up. I'm back. I'm back. You are going to live. You are going to survive. Keep fighting." John O'Leary Day at the ballpark will make it all worthwhile. See ya soon." And Brian, in short, that man came into my life almost every day for the next five months of hospitalization. He utterly changed my life. Followed through on John O'Leary Day at the ballpark, taught me how to lead and dream and live and write and achieve and move forward in my own journey.
Brian Lord: Where do you think he got that idea? Like, that's incredible by him to do that and to make that impact. Did you ever ask him, like, "Why did you do it or who inspired you to do that?"
John O'Leary: So you'd almost have to be a St. Louis person to really understand the depth of this story. But Jack Buck was the kind of guy that if you happen to be seated next to him at a little diner, he would leave without saying anything, but as you reach for your bill, you would realize someone had just paid for it and he would never take ownership of it. He was the kind of guy who would accidentally forget to get any change back from the hundred dollar bill that he gave to the person at lunch. He would just give massive tips and this is before athletes and announcers were really, truly wealthy. He did well, but not exorbitantly so. He just was stunningly generous with what he had. He grew up in the Depression. He grew up poor. He served in the war. And he realized, I think, what actually mattered and the ability each of us have to first be grateful for what we have, but then to serve those around us in a way that elevates them in their own walk. He had been told the day I was burned randomly at a charity auction that a little guy named John O'Leary was burned in St. Louis. "Keep him in your thoughts and prayers." That was all that he was told that night and the following day- there's only really one big burn center in St. Louis Jack Buck, not knowing this kid from anybody else comes into his Lincoln town car early on a Sunday morning and goes to the burn center, takes the elevator up and visits a little boy that he'd never heard of, never met and would probably never meet again. And then he was so deeply moved by that exchange that he came back. And the wild thing about coming back is he never told his wife what he was doing. He never told, Joe, his son, never told a soul that there's so much more depth to the story. But in short, he saw at John O'Leary Day at the ballpark, it's August 26, 1987, that the little boy could not get out of a wheelchair, could hold nothing. So the following day, he sent me a baseball from one Cardinal player. Below that baseball was a note that said, "Kid, if you want a second baseball, all you have to do is send a thank you letter to the guy who sent the first." This man had been with me the night before. He knew I could not write. And he knew the power of one, the power of motivation, the power to get someone to do the next best thing in their life, even if they don't think they want to do it, or even if they think they can't do it. And in doing this for me that day, he taught a little boy, John O'Leary, to write. I wrote a note to Ozzie Smith, mailed it off. And two days later, Brian, I got a second baseball from Jack with a second note that read, "Kid, if you want a third baseball." Then he said, "Kid, if you want a fourth baseball... if you want a fifth..." 1987, Jack sent to a little nobody -that's not false humility, this is just truth- a little nobody named John O'Leary sixty baseballs, teaching this little nobody named John how to write, how to live, how to set goals and to achieve them and to set another one and to achieve it and to move forward. He quietly walked with. My entire life when I graduated from university, he came one final time. He's got Stage 4 lung cancer. He is dying and he is robustly, vibrantly alive when he comes that night with a package and a note. The note read, "Kid. This means a lot to me. Hope it means a lot to you, too." I open up the package. And Brian inside was the baseball that he received when he went into the Hall of Fame. So I read the rest of the note and it says, "Kid, there is only one like this in the entire world. Don't drop it." Then he handed it to me. And then he leaves the party early. He never told Joe a Hall of Fame announcer himself that he did this, he never told Carol. He never told the media, never told a soul. He just gave and served and showed up because he could. And I think part of the beauty of the Jack Buck story is that no one knew it. No one knew it! And I think that that is in part our calling in life to just have that open heart to give and to encourage at work in the community, at home, not because we're expecting something. Maybe if we do this, our employees will do something differently. No! We give because we can. And then in doing that, people act differently. People show up differently. People work differently. People speak differently. And then life begins to change in our own reflection in life, but also all around us.
Brian Lord: So I am a huge Reds fan, and it almost- your story almost makes me like the Cardinals slightly.
John O'Leary: [Inaudible] There is room on the bandwagon!
Brian Lord: But what was it like as a speaker, being able to go and talk to your childhood team?
John O'Leary: Wow. Well, you've done your homework, man! So yeah, I've been able to speak to several sports franchises, but clearly, to speak to your home team town in spring training first and then eventually they brought me back up to speak during the regular season on the 30th anniversary of John O'Leary Day at the ballpark. That's craziness. It was. It's shocking to share a story and I don't ever take for granted that the story is gonna work if you know what I mean. Kind of like "work" in quotes like will this connect? I always there's always a central part of me that wonders, gosh, will it work for this group, and that group and in this country and with a language barrier, will it work? And to know that it works and that it moves and that it elevates people's mindsets afterward, long term, that that is powerful, too. Then afterward, hug 40 wealthy, athletic, handsome major league ballplayers to sign their books, to shake their hands, to hear their stories. That's incredibly moving for me. But for me, I think the best part, Brian, was after all that went down, one of the kids in the clubhouse said, "Hey, O'Leary, would you want to throw out the first pitch today?" You know, I don't have fingers made like this is not going to good on smooth. But my response to podcasts and Girl Scouts and the St. Louis Cardinals is always, "yes." "Yes, I'll do it, man." So I take this little ball before the game starts. Walk toward the mound about halfway out, there's a tug on my jersey, I turn around, look down. It's one of my kids named Patrick. And Patrick says to me, "Dad, don't embarrass us." Oh, great, dude. That's totally what I really need right now at the stadium packed with people like your encouragement. So I take that encouragement to the mound. Throw this pitch. It's called a strike. Walk back to where the players shake his hand, take the ball. He's signed it. And then the best part, the reason I'm smiling during this whole story is afterward I walked up to my remarkable wife, hugged her and thanked her, my four babies, loved on them. Then my incredible mom, who we could spend another entire podcast on, and then I walked over to my dad, who has been stationary in a wheelchair for eleven years. He's been unemployed for 13. He's been nonverbal for two. And I hugged him and I told my dad I loved him, that he is my hero. And when I grow up, I will not become like him. I'm an easy cry, man!
Brian Lord: [Laughing]
Brian Lord: And I hugged him. I cried with him. And then I stood back up, Brian, and I got to push my dad around the stadium, which the irony may be lost on you, but hopefully not your listeners, because 30 years the day before this picture was taken, there was a little boy named John O'Leary with really no chance at life stationery in a wheelchair, unable to do much of anything with a big goofy grin on his face. And now 30 years have passed. I've climbed out of that wheelchair. I've lived a remarkably fortunate life. My dad has stumbled into it and now I have the honor of a lifetime of pushing my dad around the stadium, celebrating John O'Leary Day at the ballpark part two. I think it's such a cool way in some regards to wrapping up our time together because I don't know where your listeners or their organizations are on that life spectrum, but I am utterly convinced that the best days are in front of us individually and collectively. I think you've got to be bold. You've got to have a little bit of audacity. You gotta have a dream bigger than the life you're currently staring at. But I think what we need right now is for people to move forward to believe that tomorrow is going to be better than today and then to be repeatedly amazed how accurate they were in that expectation. When I speak, I not only try to share like inspiration and when I write, what I try to share is not only inspiration and certainly, it's not about, "Wow. Look what John did. Maybe I can, too." What I always try to do is equip people to make themselves the star of the show and then to give them a clear pathway, which they can follow. And for me in most events. I provide them three questions to ask themselves. But then before I share the three, they ought to be asking to share the three most commonly asked. And I call them the victims' questions. But when you are struggling at work, in relationships, in life, with delays, with traffic. When the Cincinnati Reds are losing for the 11th year in a row.
Brian Lord: [Laughing]
John O'Leary: When you are a victim to circumstances, Brian Lord, there are three questions we ask. Number one is, "Why me?" Why me?" The second question is, "Who cares?" Which is the great question of indifference, and indifference always leads to death. Of relationships, of organizations, of franchises, of life. And then the third and final nail in the coffin is "What more can I do?" Kind of like look down at the ground when we ask that one. And then what I would encourage our listeners in the podcast and our listeners live in audiences to do instead is to ask three completely different questions and I'll have them write it down and I'll encourage your listeners to do it right now. People open up your pen lids. Here we go: Why me? Why me? Why am I so lucky? Why am I so blessed? Why do I have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to feel and the mind to think, create and collaborate? Why do we get to live where we live at the freest, wealthiest period in the history of human civilization? We've got a lot going for us. It's not perfect, but it's a powerful, strong foundation from which we can leap. Why me? Secondly, who cares if it's hard if there are some challenges? If we individually and collectively are asked to do more and more and more with less and less and less, who cares? Please. This is a question around mission and meaning, like values and life. It's a question around why you choose to thrive. Each day that you have. So who cares if it's hard? We and the work we do is worthy. And then third and finally, and if you're really listening at home, you probably know what's coming. But it's what more can I do? What more can I do to ensure that tomorrow is even better than today? And I believe. Yeah. These three questions, they look a lot like the first three. They're identical, in fact. But depending on how we ask, the question will influence and inform what we see, how we feel, what we think. The words we speak, the actions we take in the life ultimately we live in. So I sincerely encourage all of your listeners just to ask those questions boldly all day. Why me in the morning? What a great way to start your day. Not with a list of all you don't have or things you have to get done, but for 60 seconds, pausing to take inventory of what you have already. Then who cares? And then thirdly, and I think most importantly, what more can I do to make tomorrow better than today?