ST. LOUIS – It’s graduation weekend for thousands of students in the St. Louis area. St. Louis University alumni John O’Leary didn’t graduate at the top of his class back in 1999, but he does have a harrowing and inspiring story he shared with new SLU graduates.

Back in 1987, O’Leary watched a group of older children in his neighborhood playing with fire and gasoline. He was in a horrific accident and given a 1% chance of survival.  

“I assumed, if they can do it, so can I,” said O’Leary. “With my parents gone, I walked into the garage, bent over a can of gasoline, and poured a little bit of fluid on top. [A] huge explosion, [I] find myself engulfed. [I] spent five and a half months in burn center, burned 100 percent of my body, lost my fingers.” 

O’Leary attributes his professional success to his time at SLU, and he left the Class of 2023 feeling moved and empowered.  

“What a phenomenal commencement address,” Rodney Mosquito said. “It’s an honor to be in the presence of someone who has overcome so many challenges. It just reminds me that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.” 

SLU graduate Chloe Kepros added, “It’s awesome to hear from someone who’s also a fellow SLU student and who has been through things and come out the other side and is able to show, you know, where their life is now.” 

But O’Leary stays humble.  

“I was not an elite student and would not have been voted most likely to succeed,” he said.  

And he didn’t always feel comfortable sharing what happened to him. 

“I was invited by a Girl Scout to speak at her school,” he said. “And I made the mistake of saying yes. So that first event led to another, and another, and another.” 

Now he’s spoken 2,600 times in front of millions of people.  

“Not out of arrogance or ego, but to serve the one in front of us,” he explained.  

He is grateful for his parents’ unconditional love. In 2004, they wrote a book called “Overwhelming Odds.” Now, O’Leary has written two books himself.  

“I have a book called ‘On Fire,’ [and] another book is called ‘In Awe,’” he said. “They’re both bestsellers. Just recently there are individuals in Hollywood who realized, man, we want this story to go far beyond St. Louis and far beyond books or speaking.” 

As the Class of 2023 navigates the ups and downs of their own life stories, O’Leary wants them to remember this: “Whether they’re in the front row or the last row, their life matters.” 

St. Louis University also recognized O’Leary as an honorary degree recipient on Saturday. Around 3,000 students are graduating from SLU this month.