As he celebrated the biggest achievement of his young agriculture career, San Luis Obispo High School graduate Luke O’Leary watched his father lead a prayer in the wake of a national tragedy, flanked by President Donald Trump.
O’Leary, 20, was chosen from a select group of 42 high-ranking national FFA candidates as the youth organization’s national president — the highest rank for an FFA officer.
O’Leary, who’s currently taking a leave from his agriculture leadership and development major studies at Texas A&M University, served as California’s FFA president in the 2017-2018 cycle.
His election as national FFA president was announced Saturday during the 91st National FFA Convention & Expo in Indianapolis, following an hour-and-a-half speech by Trump.
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About 10 minutes into his speech, Trump called O’Leary’s father, Pastor Thom O’Leary of Mountainbrook Church in San Luis Obispo, to the stage to lead a prayer in response to the mass shooting that took place at a synagogue in Pittsburgh earlier Saturday. Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow also offered a prayer.
“It’s always special to have anyone in political office and to have the president there is extra special,” Luke O’Leary told The Tribune by phone Monday afternoon. “We knew about a week in advance that (Trump) would be there, but I had no idea that my dad was going to be asked to lead the prayer until my mom texted me when I was on stage.
“It was a special moment, though sad because of the lives lost.”
Trump, who called Thom O’Leary “a great pastor,” bowed his head along with O’Leary during the prayer. The president later gave the pastor and rabbi a group hug.
“We don’t always understand why crazy things happen in our world,” O’Leary said on the national FFA meeting stage during his prayer. “We’re reminded that this Earth we live on will never be as great as heaven and never as horrific as hell, but we get tastes of heaven and hell. ... We pray for protection in America. We pray, God, that your wisdom and favor will be on our president, President Trump.”
O’Leary also received calls from Vice President Mike Pence and first daughter and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump, thanking him for his hastily organized appearance on stage.
Donald Trump said he put out the call from Air Force One to find a rabbi and pastor to say grace.
Trump spoke at about 3 p.m. Eastern time Saturday, about six hours after the morning shooting at 10 a.m.
“Don’t forget, they were given about eight minutes notice,” he said, referring to O’Leary and Sendrow. “It’s like, ‘Can you get over here immediately?’ ”
Afterward, Trump commended the prayers, saying “That wasn’t easy” to do in front of many people.
Luke O’Leary said he has received about 200 texts, 30 Snapchat messages, and numerous other posts since Saturday.
During his one-year term as national FFA president, O’Leary will travel around the nation and the world to meet with leaders in business and industry, corporate sponsors, government and FFA officials, as well the general public.
On Monday, O’Leary was on a retreat with other FFA officers and preparing to spend about 300 days speaking to communities on agriculture as a career pathway. O’Leary will even take a trip to Japan, he said.
Two of O’Leary’s agriculture teachers at San Luis Obispo High School, Anna Bates and Jodi Evans, said he is a dedicated agriculture student and well-suited for the job.
“I would describe Luke as the definition of a charismatic servant leader,” Anna Bates told The Tribune by phone Monday afternoon. “He draws people in to whatever he’s doing and he’s as genuine as they get.”
Both teachers recalled O’Leary’s passion for raising goats, and O’Leary said his projects at the school, in the community and at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles helped shape his leadership, speaking, organizational and animal-raising skills.
He told the Tribune that he hopes to work in government relations someday.
Being named national FFA president is “a huge accomplishment, not only for Luke, but for our school, chapter and community,” Evans said. “He’s an amazing individual from the time he came in as a freshman until now.”