Professional Dairy Producers gain inspiration

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Inspirational speaker John O'Leary, tells attendees at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Conference, "Live fully, into tomorrow, starting today."

Have you ever done something in your life that you now realize was a big mistake? John O'Leary did. It nearly killed him.

Yet, as he laid in a hospital bed more than 30 years ago, unable to move, see or talk, through a five-month stay in the hospital, and years of surgeries which included amputating his fingers, he learned valuable lessons summed up in three questions. He shared those questions with producers at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Business Conference on March 14. 

Why me? Who cares? What more can I do? 

O'Leary encouraged producers to stop asking these questions as victims and instead replace them with the same questions as victors. 

"I'm going to be asking three completely different questions through completely different lenses that will bring light and possibility to your work, into your production, into creativity, into your marriage, into every walk of your lives," O'Leary said. 

Why me?

"When we struggle — not if — and when we choose to be victims to the struggles before us today, what is the victim's favorite question to ask?" O'Leary quizzed producers.

"Why me? Why have things changed so rapidly from what they were 15, 20 or 30 years ago? It's completely unfair," O'Leary said.

Instead, O'Leary encouraged asking, "Why me? Why am I so lucky?"

"I get to work in dairy. I get to feed the world. I get paid for this. Seriously, it is a beautiful, worthy question to ask," said O'Leary.

Who cares?

The second question O'Leary suggested be removed from vocabularies — one that is often asked with arms crossed in front of the chest — the question of indifference — who cares. 

Indifference in agriculture, with animals, on farms, in marriages, relationships, in citizenships, "indifference leads to death," O'Leary pointed out. 

However, from the perspective of a victor, it's the second best question to ask, "who cares if it's changed?"

"It's work that matters and we get to do it and we love it," O'Leary said. "It's a worthy question that allows us to do our best work."

Inspirational speaker John O'Leary, tells attendees at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Conference that, "the best days are in front of us, but you have to fight for it."

What more can I do?

The third victim question, the one that "puts the nail in our coffin, as a family, as an industry, as a leader, is, 'what more can I do?' I'm just one guy, one gal. What can I do?" said O'Leary. 

While producers may have awesome opportunities ahead, there are some major challenges facing them right now. Addressing nearly 1,700 people from 38 states and seven nations, O'Leary told producers, "there are no victims, not in this family, not today."

The final question, "what more can I do?" brought O'Leary to the story of the fateful decision he made as a 9-year-old boy in Missouri — the decision that changed his life forever. 

With every part of the story, was a nugget producers could apply to their own lives. 

The accident

Watching boys in his neighborhood sprinkle gas on the sidewalk, strike a match, then step back "two feet, for safety," O'Leary joked, they would throw the match and the "gasoline would dance to life."

"When you're 9 and you're a boy, this is awesome," O'Leary said. "You're watching liquid come to life and these guys, you looked up to, they're practically men. They're 11."

The lesson learned: It's important to follow good examples and key to recognize that people are following you as well. 

"Always give an example worthy of being followed," said O'Leary.

Figuring, if the older boys could play with fire, so could he, O'Leary went into his family's garage, bent over a can of gasoline, lit a match, and the fumes "roared out of that little can, created a massive explosion," picked him up and launched him 20 feet against the far side of the garage.

"Fumes." O'Leary added, "In life, and in dairy, in relationships, in health, frequently in finances and business — it's very seldom what we see coming that burns us."

With burns to 100 percent of his body, 87 percent of those third degree, O'Leary was given less than a one percent chance of surviving. As he laid in the hospital, eyes swollen, a trachea tube in place so he could breath, all he could do was listen. 

O'Leary told how heard his dad come into the hospital room and thought, "Oh my gosh, the old man has come to finish me off."

But even though his dad had told him "a million times not to play with gasoline," and O'Leary had blown up his dad's garage, O'Leary heard his dad tell him he loved him, that he was proud to be his dad.

"It turns out age has a lot to do with perspective, but so do challenges," O'Leary noted. 

When O'Leary's dad shifted from discipline to love, it didn't make things easier, "it just made it possible."

"He changed. It made the rest of the journey possible," O'Leary explained. "It was hard, but it was possible because of that."

"Every morning you're lucky enough to rise and see the sun shining ... ask that question. Why me?" O'Leary said. "Today, when asking that question, think about it not as a victim, but as a victor. Why am I so lucky? Why am I so fortunate?"

Inspirational speaker John O'Leary plays his mother's favorite song on the piano for nearly 1,700 people at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Conference in Madison on March 14. O'Leary has no fingers after nearly dying from an explosion when he was playing with gas at the age of 9.

Three days after O'Leary came home from the hospital, the doorbell rang and he heard the voice of his piano teacher. He hated piano and the teacher before the accident, but his mother pushed him in his wheelchair to the piano. The teacher returned the next week and every Tuesday for five years. 

Even though his mother never said it, her goal with the piano lessons was to prove to O'Leary that "they may have taken your fingers, they have not taken your life. Quit acting like it," he said.

"That's a reminder each and every one of us needs to hear in our lives. There may be some challenges that weren't around 30 years ago. Go, figure out a way," said O'Leary. "Elevate your expectations of your life, of your ability to produce change, of your ability to affect those around you, of your ability to lead."

O'Leary encouraged making a list of things you're grateful for, but top it off with "one person who inspired you to become the best person you can be."

With nothing to do but listen while he was in the hospital, O'Leary listened to his favorite thing, Cardinals baseball games broadcast on the radio. So when he heard footsteps come into his hospital room and a gruff voice say, "Kid, wake up. You are going to live. You are going to survive. We'll have John O'Leary day at the ballpark," he knew it was Jack Buck, the famous radio announcer for the Cardinals. 

Buck walked out of O'Leary's room that day and broke down crying. When he asked a nurse if O'Leary was going to make it, she told him, "No, it's his time."

"And when this diagnosis shows up on your property, on your farms, in your families, in your country, what you do next matters," said O'Leary.

What more can producers do? O'Leary encouraged thinking differently about work, about assets. 

"Sometimes it's about doing more," said O'Leary. "Other times it's about thinking differently."

Jack Buck went home and prayed and reflected on one question after seeing a severely burned 9-year-old boy — what more can I do?

What Buck did was go back to the hospital and visit O'Leary, kept encouraging him month after month until O'Leary got out of the hospital and they had John O'Leary day at Busch Stadium. 

As they broadcast the Cardinals game together O'Leary was in awe of a legend. Buck saw a little boy with scars and brokenness and no fingers. Buck saw what was next for O'Leary. 

The following day, O'Leary got an autographed baseball from Buck with a note saying, "If you want a second baseball, all you have to do is send a thank you letter to the man who signed the first one."

But there was "just one problem." O'Leary couldn't hold a pen and Buck knew it.

"Why would you do that to someone?"  O'Leary said. "He gave me the commitment, because he knew I could, if I stopped looking at all the things I lost and started looking at all the opportunity in front of me."

In 1987, the Cardinals went on to the World Series, but Jack Buck made the time to "send a little nobody named John O'Leary 60 baseballs," explained O'Leary.  As Buck contemplated 'what more can I do' he "inspired a little boy to dream, to work like a champion, which allowed him to go to grade school," high school and eventually college.

The last baseball Buck gave to O'Leary was the crystal one Buck received when he was inducted into the hall of fame. It was the only one like it. It was priceless. 

Buck taught O'Leary to set goals and "race toward them."

"I don’t know where you are in your business, with your production with your family, in your community right now in your life cycle," O'Leary concluded. "You could be at the top of the world or you could feel way down, but I’m here to tell you — the best is yet to come. Fight for it, work for it, pray for it, believe it."