A Philly and Penitentiary Afternoon


There lies an eternity of rolling hills and mid-west crops between Smithville and Leavenworth. Enough time and turns fold around you that, by the time you drop into the flood plains of the Missouri River, the precedence of all the ages which have passed over those lands settle on your soul.

You then spend another (slightly less mystic) eternity waiting for your turn at the one open lane across Centennial Bridge, over the swollen, roiling Missouri.

Established by Colonel Henry Leavenworth, this eponymous military post and subsequent town, is the oldest in Kansas. As much history and heart as one can hope to find in an American town, is here.

In the National Cemetery, row upon row of stones remind us of the price of liberty. Any time I walk there I think how content these servants must be to find their final resting place in the bosom of the land for which they lived and died, along side their brothers in arms.

Across the street the University of Saint Mary sits on the grounds of the Sisters of Charity. In their cemetery lie women, girls even, who succumbed to illnesses and malnourishment as they served food to the community.

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary presides over the southern grounds of the Fort. Called the “Big House,” for the dome which rests over the main hall, this is one of the first generation of Federal Pens. From 1903 until 2005 it was maximum security, housing such gangsters as Frankie Cavanaugh, Machine Gun Kelly, and Sonny Franzese.

Leavenworth has played host to (in order of most to least respectable): Race car drivers, fraudulent explorers, Nazis, Commies, politicians, serial killers, CEOs, and Michael Vick.

Today, along-side the 1800 medium security inmates, beneath that mighty dome, passed a cluster of volunteers, a Chaplain, his daughter, and John O’Leary.

One of a handful of Life Connections Programs is established in a cell block herein. The 18 month intensive rehabilitation program endeavours to educate the men to think and live responsibly. Through mentors, speakers, and all variety of programs, the LCP staff encourage and educate inmates toward being reputable civilians.

Today Dr. Kendall Hughes, LCP Chaplain (aka-Dad), invited me to meet John O’Leary and to attend his talk to the men.

Over Philly Cheese Steaks at the Metropolitan Steak House before-hand, I was struck by what a genuine and grateful man John is. His story carries great weight. As per his website, http://www.rising-above.com, “As a nine-year-old boy, he was burned on 100% of his body and given less than one percent chance of surviving the first night. He endured months in the hospital, years in therapy, dozens of surgeries, and lost all of his fingers to amputation. Despite the odds, John overcame these challenges and enjoys wonderful success in life.”

That fire cast some ember much deeper than anyone could have known, for John has gone on to share the story with thousands of people world-wide, inspiring them to “ignite their lives”. It burns in his honest smile and I guess it is his humility which feeds it steadily.

Sitting in the auditorium I watched an inmate call John over, showing him the burns scarred into his back. The exchange reminded me again that we often have more in common than we know. It takes one man, willing to share his story, to open others up to explore their own. A gift of immeasurable proportions.

One thought on “A Philly and Penitentiary Afternoon

  1. John says:

    Bethany – – that was beautiful!!!! (and no….I am not saying that just because I know the author, her father and a few of the characters in the post!) It really was lovely. Well done – keep writing – keep dreaming – keep moving forward and God bless – – John

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