BY KRISTI FISH | MIRROR REPORTER — More than 36 years ago, on January 17, 1987, John O’Leary was burned on 100 percent of his body at the age of 9 when he was playing with matches and gasoline. In the decades since, he has spent much of his time reminding others that their lives matter, through his books and speaking engagements.
Students from more than 10 local schools had the opportunity to hear the reminder from the author and speaker on Wednesday, March 15, thanks to the staff at Savage and Associates.
O’Leary spoke with high school and college students about the lessons he’s learned in his life and how he hopes others will benefit from the choices he’s made.
Based on his own experiences, O’Leary explained to the group that he wanted them to learn a few things: that their life matters and that the decisions they make will impact their lives now and in the future, along with the lives of those around them.
“Your call is to see what’s broken and to make it better,” O’Leary told the students.
He outlined the people who recognized when things were wrong or broken and helped him: his brother, who put out the flames covering his body; his dad, who reminded him of his love when he needed it most; sportscaster Jack Buck, who visited him every day in the hospital; and his mom, who knew what he needed and helped him get it.
These people, he said, reminded him that his life mattered, so, in the decades since, he’s made sure to act like it. What each person did to help him, deserved recognition, but his mother was the one he wanted to call attention to the most.
“She made a phone call that I think changed my life,” O’Leary said about his mom in the months following his accident. “She called a piano teacher.”
The piano teacher began slowly introducing adaptive lessons to O’Leary, showing him how he could play the piano, even though a surgery he had for his burns removed his fingers.
During the lessons, his teacher also taught O’Leary one of the most important messages he was told as a child.
“This is going to be really, really hard. Welcome to life, and we can do it together,” O’Leary said the teacher told him.
Reminding others that they can do hard things, and they can do them together, is important to O’Leary, he said.
The people in his life who helped him do hard things, he said, also reminded him of one very important fact, especially when he was attempting something difficult.
“We are imperfect, and that’s all right. Your life matters still,” O’Leary said he learned.
O’Leary told the group what helped him in life was faith, hope, love and goals. He encouraged those in attendance to find what motivates them and to listen to it, while finding a way to motivate and help others, too.
He also told the students it’s important to help others be the best version of themselves.
“When you see someone act differently, show up differently and love differently, you recognize that and you want to be more like that,” O’Leary said.
He tries to keep that in mind in his day-to-day life, O’Leary said, reminding himself that he is being watched and he is a model to many people, especially his children.
It was just some of the wisdom he tried to impart to the hundreds of people he met in Maumee on March 15.
While visiting the area, O’Leary also spoke to Savage and Associates employees in the morning and clients in the evening, but the visit with students was what excited him the most about the trip, he said.
“I’ve spoken 2,600 times in 50 states, dozens of countries, millions of people. This is the first-ever event that brought us in for their corporate leaders, a huge collection of young people and then a community event,” O’Leary said. “To loop all three things together shows you who Savage is. They do great work.”
Savage and Associates president and CEO J.R. Toland addressed the crowd at the end of the event and thanked the students and leaders for attending. He emphasized the advice O’Leary had given during his speech and encouraged everyone to do the best they can each day.
“The message I hope you all heard is, No. 1, you matter, and everyone in the room matters. No. 2, you can change the world, but it starts with you,” Toland said.