A teacher, a leader and a friend


Throughout a lifetime, people are lucky to have had a teacher who truly changed their life.

Rarely do we meet someone who becomes a leader in almost everything they do. If a teacher and a leader also become a close friend, you should consider yourself blessed.

For many people in this community, John O’Rourke filled the role of teacher, leader, and friend. For that, we have been blessed.

Forty-five years ago, while working as the director of respiratory therapy at Clinton Memorial Hospital, I took a call from John O’Rourke. At the time, John was working with the Wilmington Fire Department. He was training rescue personnel on methods to use when recovering victims of cold-water drowning.

He heard that I had been teaching a program to the hospital staff about cold-water drowning and techniques that could be used to revive a drowning victim who might have been submerged for up to an hour. At the time, John was a specialist in training scuba divers on recovering victims of cold-water drowning.

During that phone call, John said he was looking forward to attending my class. Instead, we set up a class for the entire fire department.

Following the presentation, we talked for quite a while. John was interested in combining our two programs. John would teach scuba search and recovery and I would follow-up with a program on the physiology of cold water drowning and special consideration for cold-water resuscitation.

I was very interested, but then he really hooked me.

He asked me if I had ever considered taking a scuba class. I told him that I’d been diving a few times in Florida but had never taken a lesson. He told me that if I would help with one of his search and recovery classes, he would let me take one of his scuba classes. I jumped at the chance.

Over the years, I assisted John while he taught many of his scuba classes. We spent several hours together diving in the waters of Lake Erie, Ashtabula Harbor, Caesar Creek Lake, Cowan Lake, and many other ponds and rivers throughout Ohio.

I spent enough time teaching with John that I eventually earned the rating of Dive Master.

We have had some great adventures, both under and above water. The year after we started working and diving together, John invited me to go with him to Stella Maris Inn in the Bahamas. After students completed his scuba class, that is one of the places he would take them for their final check-out dives.

I jumped at that chance. For many years those early summer dive trips to the Bahamas with John O’Rourke and his students was a huge part of my year.

John always taught his scuba students that they needed to achieve neutral buoyancy when scuba diving. Neutral buoyancy is what a diver achieves when they submerge and no longer sink or rise to the surface. It is when a diver can slightly inhale and rise a little or exhale to drop lower in the water. It is achieved with careful adjustments to a buoyancy compensator and carefully controlled breathing.

While we were underwater, he taught us to sink slowly headfirst. Just before our head touched the bottom, we would inhale ever so slightly and stop just inches from the bottom. A slight breath in would allow us to rise slowly.

When done properly, it feels like magic. I can recall achieving neutral buoyancy while doing a hand-stand at the edge of an underwater ledge. When pushing off and exhaling, I felt like I was flying.

Move over Iron Man — I know what it is like to fly.

John’s local dive team was called out frequently by the sheriff’s department to find things – bodies, cars, boats, weapons, and stolen items. John always knew where to start looking.

He always spent a lot of time in his search and recovery classes explaining how to establish the “area of probability.” That, based on interviewing witnesses, is where the object is most likely to be found.

Several times we would snorkel out into the night to find something in a lake, creek, or pond. John would have us positioned just above what we needed to find. It was almost spooky at times, like he had a sixth sense.

There was more to John O’ than firefighting and scuba. He was also a man of deep faith. He loved being involved with his church.

Starting in the mid-1990s, he volunteered with the local Emmaus community. The community would provide weekend spiritual retreats for Christians who wanted to experience God’s grace in a personal manner.

For several years, John helped bring those programs to the community. I was honored to work with John on those weekends.

Diving can be a metaphor for life. John was there for his friends during the ups and downs of their scuba adventures. He was also there during the ups and downs of our lives. He shared his expertise with friends and with students.

If you paid attention, John would not only make you a better diver – he would make you a better person.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.


Randy Riley

Contributing columnist

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