As a 9-year-old, John O’Leary nearly died. He was playing in his garage in St. Louis when he accidentally set off an explosion. He was left with third-degree burns covering his entire body — and even had to have his fingers amputated.
O’Leary recounted the story of his near-death and ultimate survival in his book “On Fire,” which became a national bestseller. And now he’s back with another book: “In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning, and Joy.”
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, O’Leary explained his thesis: that we start life with all the right tools for happiness, only to have childlike senses such as “wonder” and “expectancy” drilled out of us.
“As little ones, we believe that everything is possible. We raise our hands to answer every single question,” he said. “Not only that we want to answer questions, but that we want to ask our own questions. But asking the question ‘why’ or ‘why not’ or ‘what if’ or ‘who cares’ enough times, we’re told by those in front of us to stop asking questions, [or] that there’s only one answer, that it’s B or it’s C or it’s true or it’s false, and so we get a little bit less creative, a little bit less curious in asking the questions about life.
“And part of the idea behind the book ‘In Awe’ is to encourage people to become childlike in the way they see what’s in front of them and ask questions about what’s possible.”
And that’s especially important right now as we’re dealing with a unique, and extremely difficult, set of circumstances.
“Back in 1963, Kennedy had this wild idea of going to the moon and back, ‘not because it’s easy, but because it’s hahd,’” O’Leary recalled, slipping briefly into his best John F. Kennedy accent. “It’s one of the finest speeches ever given. But it’s important to recognize that so much of that ambitious desire, the technology that we needed to have to get us to the moon and back had not even been invented.
“And so what we need, not only in our school systems, not only during a pandemic, not only during this recession and everything else going on, professionally, corporately and individually, are these wild ambitions of what might be possible going forward in our lives, but also no holds barred. We come into situations frequently believing that we already have limitations, that the ceiling is already determined. And what children do is, they have no expectations of that. There is no ceiling to their lives. They go through each day with wild-like joy and optimism and awe. We call it first-time living. The more we can experience our days like children again, the more we can get more out of the days we experience.”
O’Leary also discussed his relationship with the late Jack Buck. Buck visited the young O’Leary in the hospital time after time after he nearly lost his life in that garage fire — yet O’Leary didn’t visit Buck years later when the broadcasting legend was struggling with Parkinson’s, something he still regrets.
“It was the sense that I was never worthy of receiving what he'd given me in the first place,” he explained.
O’Leary also didn’t go to his funeral, something he said he still feels deep regret about to this day.
He explained that he drove to the church for the funeral. But he couldn’t bring himself to go in.
“As I looked around the parking lot, I saw the who’s who of St. Louis and beyond … and then I looked in the mirror again and I saw this 24-year-old guy who was just a fake and didn’t belong still,” he said. “And I made another painful, poor decision to turn my car back on and go back out of the parking lot and drive away. … I made it about three miles down the road and just started weeping.”
But that “lousy move” ended up leading to an awakening.
“I’m not going to live my life anymore less than I actually am,” he recalled telling himself. “I can allow this thing to beat me down of who I wasn’t, and what a lousy friend I was, or I can allow it become a redemptive moment.”
That day, O’Leary finally sat down with his grandparents and told them what they meant to him. The next day, he took his parents out to dinner, and thanked them for getting him through his long recovery. In time, he even became a hospital chaplain in hopes of helping people like himself, 15 years earlier — work that ultimately led to his career as a public speaker and author.
“I realized as I was growing into my life after losing my friend Jack Buck, where he’d changed my life was a hospital,” he said. “And maybe that’s where I’m called to make a difference.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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