He’s not big in stature. Just 5-feet-6. But John Olivarez has a heart as big as Texas when it comes to serving God, family, community and others. The Independence native has been a “fighter” all his life, he says, noting he had to defend himself from the “big kids” who picked on him in school. “So I learned (early on) I wasn’t very big, and had to depend on God,” he says. And he has been doing it ever since. Like July 17, 2012, when he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and given a 5 percent chance of survival. “I didn’t know what pancreatic cancer was. But I knew it was bad,” he says, “because I never had a doctor or a nurse walk me to my car crying. So I knew it was bad.” But whatever it took to kill the cancerous tumor before it spread to his liver, John was prepared to endure, he says, knowing the treatment included two rounds of chemo, one round of radiation and the painful whipple surgery that offered him an opportunity to beat cancer. On Nov. 1, 2012, as surgeons were removing parts of John’s stomach, intestines, pancreas and his gall bladder, family and friends prayed for a miraculous healing. John was told he would be hospitalized for 21 days. But 10 days later, he walked out of Research Hospital with “more chemo and a long road to recovery.” On June 17 of this year, John heard the good news: He had won the fight; he was cancer free. The bearer of good tidings was John’s oncologist, Dr. Singh, who greeted John – not with a happy face – but with tears (of joy) streaming down his face. “My first thought,” John says, “was that he was going to tell me I was dying. He gave me a big hug and exclaimed: ‘We didn’t beat it; you were healed by God. You are cancer free ... and you will someday die, but not from cancer.” Today, John is off chemo and his blood pressure is “perfect.” However, there are still complications from the surgery. With so many body parts removed, the operation has drastically changed John’s life. But with those body parts missing, he says, “I have a bigger testimony in life: that God is still alive performing miracles.” The Olivarez family has been part of Independence since John’s grandfather, Jose Olivarez, and his family left Mexico in 1921 for a new life. The family eventually settled in Cement City in 1925 near the Missouri River. Grandfather Olivarez knew if he was ever going to live in Independence – where he wanted to move – he needed assistance, as no one was selling property to Mexicans at that time. So Jose asked his good friend, Independence attorney George Hare, for help in acquiring land on which to construct a house. Hare offered his assistance by purchasing the desired property on North River Boulevard. Then he sold it to Jose, thus making the Olivarez family the first Hispanic family to settle and buy real estate in Independence. Jose lived in the house at 2203 N. River until his death in 1985. Says John : “My father (then) donated a piece of land to the city to build a street that would allow him to sell some of his land to three Mexican families – the Barretos, Calderons and Polinas. The area and the street became known as “Las Cuatro Vidas,” which means “The Four Lives.” It didn’t take the Olivarez family long to become involved in the Independence community. Jose started the Our Lady of Guadeloupe Festival on North River Boulevard in 1949. Twenty years later, the festival moved to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which is hosting the 64th celebration of the patron saint of Mexico. John, who lives next door to his father and mother, Johnny and Joanne Olivarez, was born in 1951 at the old Independence Sanitarium. As an only child, he was community-minded and has spent his entire adult life serving Independence and its residents. What he’s most proud of is his 16-year tenure on the city’s Human Relations Committee. He was appointed to the post in 1982 and retired in 1998 as its chairman. Family is very important to the Olivarez family. John and his wife, Gerrie, have seven children and 24 grandchildren to help run the family businesses. Married in 1969 after graduating from Truman High School, John teamed up with his parents to run Johnny’s Red Bull Drive-in, a Mexican restaurant, from 1980 to 1988. The family also operated Factory Sales Outlet, Shocking Prices Outlet Store and Mid-America Liquidators. Today, John and Gerrie live in a two-story, 24-room, white-limestone house at 2525 S. Lee’s Summit Road, where it’s believed Harry Truman played poker with a small group of friends, including the McMillan sisters, who owned the house. John purchased the residence in 1999 unaware of its ties with Truman. He learned later about the connection after repairmen working in the house told him their fathers had seen the former president playing poker there while they were in the house making repairs. Could the house be haunted? John and Gerrie have never noticed any strange happenings there. But one of Gerrie’s psychic friends did some 10 years ago at a party. While looking at the house, she asked: “Why is that soldier leaning up against the house?” “It just caught us off guard,” John says. “We were really surprised, but I didn’t see the soldier, whom the psychic believes was protecting the house. As for the future, John says his old life – which lasted 61 years – is behind him. Now he’s beginning a new life as a 1-year-old. Says John: “I have personally reorganized my priorities in my new life from being a workaholic to being more of a person who tries to guide and help family members, friends and the city. ...I just want in this new life not to focus so much on working so hard, as reaching out to those in need, helping my community and ways to better serve God.”
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.