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Delivering the Commencement Address at Saint Louis University reminds John of the priceless gift he received upon his own graduation.

Over the weekend, I had the immense honor of delivering the commencement address for the Class of 2023 at my alma mater, Saint Louis University.

As I watched the graduates cross the stage full excitement, trepidation, nerves and ultimately hope, I couldn’t help but think back to my own graduation. Which let’s be honest, was also anchored in hope—hope that they’d actually let me graduate!

But somehow, this high-spirited, but academically unmotivated kid, did graduate college that day.

Another miracle appeared the night of graduation. I never dated in grade school. Never dated in high school. And the drought continued during four years of college. But graduation night it rained; the miracle of love appeared.

Consider for a moment what she might look like?

Just shut your eyes and for a moment consider what love looked like for me that night .

You got her in mind?

No, think again. Not that kind of love.

The love that appeared graduation night wasn’t physical, it wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t the beginning of a lifelong partnership. Instead, it was the incredible generosity of Jack Buck flowing once more into my life.

We’d kept up our friendship over the years.

In learning that the boy who didn’t have a chance to survive the fire, and certainly had no chance to write again, was now graduating college, Jack dropped off a gift for me.

At a dinner celebrating my graduation, surrounded by family, I was handed a beautifully wrapped box with a short note from Jack Buck.

The first word read, “Kid.” (At times I wondered if Jack ever knew my freaking name!)

The note went on, “This means a lot to me. I hope it means a lot to you, too.”

I unwrapped the present, opened the box, looked inside, and saw another baseball. But this one was different. It was heavy. It appeared dark. It seemed to be made out of glass. Stepping away from the table and the darkened dining room, I walked outside, seeking light to see what it was.

I opened the door of the restaurant and, as the sun set, pulled the ball out of the box and held it into the light. Glinting off the crystal baseball I saw the engraving “Jack Buck. Baseball Hall of Fame. 1987.”

That was the year I was burned.

It was also the year Jack was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

This was Jack Buck’s Hall of Fame baseball.

I lost my breath and looked back at his note.

Kid, this means a lot to me. I hope it means a lot to you, too. This is the baseball I received when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s made of crystal. It’s priceless. Don’t drop it! Your friend, Jack

I looked again at this priceless gift.

Why would Jack Buck give me such a treasured possession?

With the ball glimmering before me, I felt woefully undeserving of this gift. This baseball should have been on display in his home. This should have been passed on to the next generation in his family. This should not have been mine.

I was a twenty-two-year-old kid. I was scared of my own shadow. I had no idea who I was or what life was all about. I was so overwhelmed by the gift that I took it home that night and buried it in my sock drawer.

I didn’t want anyone to see this gift that I felt unworthy of receiving. I knew if someone saw it, they might ask how I got it. Then I might have to tell them how I came to know Jack. Then I might have to share my scars, my story. I wasn’t prepared for that.

So, I kept it to myself. I hid it. In darkness. For years.

But light always overcomes darkness. Sometimes it just takes time to chase the shadows.

When Jack gave me the ball, he had no idea that someday my dad would be stricken with the same ailment Jack battled, Parkinson’s disease. He had no idea my parents would write a book. He had no idea one day the kid would grow up, embrace his scars, and share his story. Jack had no idea that hundreds of thousands of people around the world would be inspired by his gift, his generosity, the way he stepped into my life. He likely had no idea just how bright the light might shine.

Jack gave for a much simpler reason.

He gave because he could.

In doing so, he radically inspired my life.

I think of Jack all the time. I think of his voice bringing light into my darkness in the hospital. I think of John O’Leary Day at the ballpark. I think of those sixty baseballs arriving in the mail teaching me to write again. Every time I see his crystal baseball shimmering, reflecting light around the room, I think of how one person can make a difference.

I thought of Jack again on Saturday as I addressed the graduates of Saint Louis University. As I reminded them of the power they have to make a difference.

And I think of him again as I remind each of you that today is your day. Live Inspired.

12 replies on “A Priceless Gift”

Beautiful! Your life is full of “Jabez” moments! It’s simply amazing the things that have happened to you and you are here to tell it! You are a great witness so keep telling it!!

Thank you for sharing John! I had the pleasuring of hearing you in Montgomery a week ago with the ALFA GM’s and mid managers. Your story and that talk has inspired me. I shared your story and your website with my mother who needs to live inspired after losing my dad 18 months ago. They shared 57 years together. So thank you!!!
You asked us to think about one person that inspires us to do what we do and you asked us to text them and tell them. That person was my dad. I sat in the audience that day with tears running down my face because I couldn’t text him and tell him I love him. Thankfully I told him all the time and he knew how much he inspired me. Thank you for challenging those around me to say thank you while they could.

John, thank you for always reminding us what a difference we CAN make just by being kind and selfless! Have a super day!

I loved your presentation at NCPDP a couple weeks ago. As a youngster in central Illinois, I loved listening to baseball with Jack Buck on the radio. Your story makes me appreciate him even more. Thank you for sharing your story.

I had the honor of hearing you speak Saturday as my daughter graduated grad school. I’m a Burn Social Worker and work with Burn Survivors, I was in awe of your strength and it meant so much to see you up there.

I was at the 2023 SLU graduation ceremony. I thought about Jack Buck too. He would say, “O’Leary hit it out of the ball park, go crazy folks, go crazy! That one is a winner”. The graduates and those who attended were inspired. Three lesson: 1. Your life is a precious, priceless, gift. Let it be used for good. 2. Love, in this broken world. Love that is an unearned grace. It is called love and mercy. Let your life be used for good. Be a model and an example of love. ‘I love you and there is nothing you can do about it’ kind of love. 3. Show what defiant hope looks like and ultimately apply this in your life.

John, I met you at a MSCA convention in Colorado Springs. You helped present us sn award for “Every Day Hero”. After hearing your story and the way Jack Buck helped give purpose back to you life , my wife and I felt so unworthy. All we could do was cry as we were getting our award. Your story is very moving. I share it with a lot of people. We are still doing ministry. “Kingdom Investors” We missed our 20 year celebration due to Covid but still hope to have you speak at our celebration whenever we can finally pull it off. God’s blessings to you.
George and Donna Warren

John keep shining your light as it reflects a positive attitude towards life and the hope for a better tomorrow. Randy

John for me Jack gave you more than his precious gift of the Crystal Baseball award – he was giving you strength, hope & courage all wrapped up in one present – the same thing you were doing to all of the graduates this evening – now sit back & see how that seed grows & matures! Bill A

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