ALPHARETTA, Ga. — As inspirational speakers go, John O’Leary has a unique message of faith, hope, perseverance and mission. And he gets your attention from word one.
His inspiration comes from his experiences as a 9-year-old child who survived receiving burns over 100 percent of his body — 87 percent were third degree burns.
His motto is “Live Inspired,” and that is the message he has brought to 49 states and 18 countries.
That was the message he brought Aug. 27 to grades 5-12 at King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta. O’Leary is charismatic, enthusiastic and full of positivism about life and about his Christian faith.
Speaking to the students he told them he wanted to talk to them about the “Power of One.”
He begins his talk about the fateful day when he decided to mimic what he had seen older boys doing — taking a can of gasoline and lighting it on the sidewalk to watch the pretty flames.
Unfortunately, O’Leary decided he would go to the basement of his parents’ home to do so in secret. Flame met gasoline and the can exploded. God was in his life, O’Leary said, because only a series of extraordinary interventions allowed him to survive his burns.
First, his 17-year-old brother just happened to be home and rushed to the basement in time to smother the flames on his brother with some old rugs stored down there.
Next, an incredible burn-unit team at the St. Louis hospital he was taken to gave him the chance to live. Finally, he credits the enormous efforts his parent made to nurse him physically and psychologically.
His first day home after weeks in the hospital, he is in his bed, one arm bandaged so that it sticks out at a right angle to his body.
“My mother appeared at the door and informed me it was time for my piano lesson and that the teacher was downstairs,” he told the students.
No amount of begging would put her off.
“I tried to tell her that I might be 100 percent home, but I still had 87 percent third degree burns,” O’Leary told the rapt students listening to him.
What O’Leary did not know then was his parents were determined that life for their son would go as normally as possible — it would take more work is all.
And so he had that piano lesson and the ones that followed in the weeks, months and years.
Then to cement the story, a piano is rolled out on stage for O’Leary to play. He doesn’t have many fingers left, but he played a melodic version of “Amazing Grace” to show those lessons had not been for naught.
O’Leary’s life has been little short of miraculous. But he credits having God in his life and many wonderful friends, family and supporters.
He tells the story of the courtship of his future wife. How he told her he wanted to be more than a friend and have an actual date.
“She told me she really liked me, but ‘as a brother.’ That is about the worst thing she could have said,” he told the students.
But he persevered, and after four years she finally admitted she now “had feelings too.” Two years later they were married and now have a family.
His parents wrote a book about their experiences nursing their son back to health, “Overwhelming Odds.” It became a bestseller with 700,000 copies sold.
As O’Leary began to tell his story, he said God told him he should keep telling it. That has led to his own bestselling book: “ON FIRE: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life.”
He also continues to reach audiences, more than 80 speaking engagements annually, through his website, johnolearyinspires.com and his podcasts in addition to his motivational talks as a speaker.