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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In On Fire, John O'Leary Details How Jack Buck — and Other St. Louisans — Saved His Life

Posted By on Tue, Mar 22, 2016 at 6:15 AM

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Jack Buck encouraged John to learn how to write again by sending him signed baseballs. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE O'LEARY FAMILY
  • Photo Courtesy of the O'Leary family
  • Jack Buck encouraged John to learn how to write again by sending him signed baseballs.

With a little help from his parents, O’Leary was able to write the Cardinals shortstop a thank you note. A few days later, another baseball arrived with another note that began ‘Kid, if you want a third baseball.’ By the end of 1987, Buck had sent O’Leary 60 signed baseballs from players all around Major League Baseball, with 60 painstaking notes sent in return. “Sixty baseballs from a very busy guy teaching a little nobody in St. Louis how to write,” O’Leary says, shaking his head.

Yet there was one more baseball to come. On the night that O'Leary graduated from Saint Louis University, Buck presented him with the crystal baseball the broadcaster had received when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. “It is priceless. It’s made out of crystal, there’s only one like it in the whole world,” O’Leary says, still in disbelief. “He shows up and he gives me this baseball, to a kid who has no clue what he’s going to do in his life other than go to Humphrey’s later on that night, that was the extent of my vision at that point. One more time, making a difference from one St. Louisan to another, and he did it all quietly.”

click to enlarge Jack Buck and John on the night of his graduation from SLU. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE O'LEARY FAMILY
  • Photo Courtesy of the O'Leary family
  • Jack Buck and John on the night of his graduation from SLU.

While this story couldn’t be told without Buck, O’Leary believes it also reflects on St. Louis as a community. How else, he asks, could Buck find out about his accident?

As it turns out, it really does take a village – or at least a string of phone calls, beginning with O’Leary’s next-door neighbor and ending with Colleen Schoendienst, daughter of Cardinal great Red Schoendienst. Shoendienst told her father the story and, as he sat next to Buck at a charity auction, in passing Schoendienst told him that a little boy had been burned and asked him to keep the lad in his prayers.

“So yeah, we can celebrate how great Jack is, and oh my lord, what an impact he made, but the reality is what allowed that impact to take root and to take place in the first place was Red and Colleen, and three other St. Louisans doing their part and making sure that the story had a happy ending,” O’Leary says.

Today, O’Leary has achieved his happy ending. He lives with his wife and kids in Webster Groves; he's made more than 1,500 speeches in the past seven years. He launched his career as a professional speaker after his parents wrote their own book about his life, "Overwhelming Odds."

In passing, you might not see O'Leary's scars right away. First, you'd probably notice his warm smile and wit. In fact, it might not be until O'Leary extends an arm to greet you that you might begin to wonder what exactly happened.

He says, “I don’t consider myself a burn victim. If you ask me what happened, it frees me to tell you a little bit more and then if I’m really listening, I realize that you’re probably asking for a reason. Something probably happened in your life that you’re connecting your scars with mine.”

He adds, “Your scars might not be physical but everybody’s got scars they bear, and I think being able to embrace yours, it allows you to meet others where they are in their story.”

Today, John, his wife Beth, and their four children live in Webster Groves. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE O'LEARY FAMILY
  • Photo Courtesy of the O'Leary family
  • Today, John, his wife Beth, and their four children live in Webster Groves.

In his book, O'Leary calls for a change in mindset for how people think how people think of themselves – and he hopes it will be a wakeup call for his beloved hometown, too.

“In St. Louis we have such a victim mentality. We are the worst city in the world—just ask us. We’ll tell you all about how horrible we are. And yet, that’s just not the case. There is no wall around St. Louis. We could all move somewhere else, so why do we choose to be here? I think we realize when we are reflective on it that this is an amazing city. We are full of vibrancy, of resiliency and full of grit.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated an incorrect number of times John O'Leary has spoken in the past seven years. It is more than 1,500. We regret the error.

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