When John O’Leary (Cook ’99) was 9 years old, he decided to experiment with fire and gasoline in his family’s garage. His innocent undertaking caused an instant explosion. O’Leary was burned over 100 percent of his body; 87 percent was third-degree. His doctors and nurses did not think he would make it through the night; he was given a less than 1 percent chance of surviving.
John O’Leary (Cook ’99) and Beth (Hittler) O’Leary (Doisy ’01) in front of St. Francis Xavier College Church.
But survive he did. After a grueling but miraculous recovery — his doctor told him he had never seen anything like it in his entire career — O’Leary worked to put the fire behind him. He enrolled at Saint Louis University, where he met his wife, Beth (Hittler) O’Leary (Doisy ’01), who is now a SLU adjunct instructor in occupational therapy.
After college, he started a real estate development business with a fellow SLU alumnus. He later pursued a chaplaincy program through SLU and worked as a hospital chaplain for three years. He and Beth began having children — they now have four. But he never talked much about the fire; even Beth and his college roommates knew few details about how he had gotten his scars.
That changed in 2005, when his parents, Susan and Denny (Law ’68), published a book, Overwhelming Odds, about that fateful day in 1987 and the journey for their family that followed.
“It was an unauthorized biography of my life,” O’Leary joked. “It changed my life.”
His parents’ telling of it helped him realize that the fire and its aftermath had brought out the best in everyone around him, from his sister Susan, who risked her life running into their burning house to retrieve cups of water to pour onto his face; to his hospital-room janitor, who kept it spotless and free of infection; to broadcaster Jack Buck, who sent him more than 60 autographed baseballs from St. Louis Cardinals baseball players to encourage him to learn to write again, despite having had his fingers amputated.
“Our neighbors opened up their homes to my siblings as we waited for the house to be repaired; the community raised money, donated blood, offered prayers, brought food,” he wrote. “I had never before fully considered all the people who came together to make the miracle a reality. … As if cataracts had been cut away, I understood, ‘Oh my gosh … it was all a gift.’”