Ohio 4-H alum makes mark internationally
COLUMBUS — David O’Brock grew up at the edge of North Benton, a small town in northeast Ohio near the Mahoning/Portage county line. His mother was an adviser for a 4-H club, and he tagged along to 4-H meetings with his older siblings even before he was old enough to join.
Little did he know that his longtime 4-H experience would lead him to a career in international business, as well as finding love and a new home in Estonia.
O’Brock, 41, is now CEO for the Estonia-based, 500-employee Molycorp Silmet AS (www.silmet.ee/), a division of U.S. Molycorp, the largest U.S. producer of rare earth metals.
He and his wife, Triin Kaljuvee-O’Brock, and two children, ages 11 and 13, live in Rakvere, Estonia, in the same home where O’Brock and Kaljuvee met, when O’Brock was a 24-year-old participant in a youth exchange program offered through Ohio 4-H.
His parents are owners of O’Brock Windmill Distributors, and they took O’Brock whenever possible as they traveled the country installing windmills. When O’Brock was 17, he participated in a yearlong Rotary exchange to Australia, which further cemented his yearning to travel beyond the horizon.
“I hoped that the exchange program would give me the opportunity to experience even more cultures,” he said.
While studying international studies at Ohio State, he applied to Ohio 4-H’s International 4-H youth exchange program, which — before study abroad programs were widely available at universities — accepted young adults up to age 25. He was accepted two years later, in 1994.
“Initially, I wanted to go to Costa Rica because I spoke fluent Spanish, I enjoyed surfing, and, to be honest, I really liked South and Central American girls,” O’Brock said. “I remember the IFYE national coordinator calling me up one day and asking me, ‘What do you think about Estonia?’ My immediate thought was, ‘It’s cold there.’
“I was also thinking there is no surf there, and I also don’t know what the girls look like. She told me that Estonia wanted to take its first-ever exchange, and with me being a little older and experienced with international travel, I would be the best fit to send there. I was ready for anything so I said, ‘Sure, sounds great.'”
O’Brock stayed with several families during his six months in Estonia, and Mary Lynn Thalheimer, who has been involved with the Ohio 4-H international exchange program for 22 years, still recalls when he returned from his Estonian travels in December 1994.
“He told me he had fallen in love with an Estonian girl named Triin Kaljuvee, a host-sister in one of the families he stayed with,” Thalheimer said.
The couple married in 1996, living in Ohio before returning to Estonia in 1998. Thalheimer and O’Brock have kept in touch over the years.
“David has led an amazing life,” she said. “He always emphasizes that but for Ohio State, he would never have had the chance to live overseas, learn about other cultures and languages, and thrive in the creative, burgeoning business environment of Estonia as it emerged from under Soviet rule.”
O’Brock’s company, which has been featured on CNN and NPR’s Marketplace, obliges him to travel to six continents every year. On a daily basis, he speaks in English, Estonian and Russian.
O’Brock, who recalls that his all-time favorite 4-H project was rocketry, thought during college that he would end up in a career in diplomacy.
“I had hoped that my exchange would give me more of that ‘worldly’ experience which I thought would be needed to be a successful diplomat,” he said. “I have to say that today I do more diplomatic work than I could have ever imagined — only I do it for private entities rather than governments.”
Returning the favor
O’Brock and his wife, whose father is a member of the Estonian Parliament, also have given back to the program that brought them together, hosting an Ohio 4-H youth study tour group in 2000. Thalheimer brought 10 Ohio 4-H’ers to Estonia where they lived with families near O’Brock’s village.
“I think the Ohio kids had a great experience,” O’Brock said, “and I was able to arrange a reciprocal trip to the USA for the Estonian host siblings the following year. I know they had a wonderful time there, and they brought back a boatload of experiences from their time living with Ohio 4-H host families.”
O’Brock believes the IFYE program’s goals of building cultural understanding and promoting international relations can have a profound effect on the right people.
“It takes a special type of person to be an IFYE participant,” he said. “You have to be ready for anything, from living on an organic farm picking up rocks from the field with the host family for days on end, to helping your host dad build the house of his dreams, to going to high-profile functions or being interviewed on radio, or just being able to hold up your end of a conversation about anything.
“These are just a few of the incredible things that I experienced during my short six months in IFYE. If the student has an open mind and always reacts to new situations with the thought that ‘it is not better or worse, only different,’ then there are incredible opportunities that will open themselves up to that person.
“It is an unsuccessful exchange if all people involved do not come away a little changed in their views of each other and of themselves.”
Although the specific IFYE program that O’Brock participated in has been discontinued, many other travel and hosting opportunities for youth are available through Ohio 4-H. More information on the Ohio 4-H International Program is available at www.ohio4h.org/youth/international.