Tech’s life lessons helped this chemist switch from molecules to merlot
Oct 18, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
As a student growing up in Columbus, Ga., in the late 1970s, John F. Oswald couldn’t wait to get to Georgia Tech. Two older brothers were already there majoring in chemistry and chemical engineering, and he was eager to follow so he could spin centrifuges and mix his own solutions in a lab.
Oswald reached his academic goals. He received his B.S. in chemistry from Tech in 1984 and his M.S. in 1987. He married Dina-Marie Davenport, whom he met in Atlanta, and took a lucrative job with the Swiss chemical company Ciba at their facility in Mobile, Ala. The couple built a 5,000-square-foot house and soon started filling it with children – 10, to be exact.
In 2008, John traded one chemistry for another, a swap that if done right results in a refreshing glass of sauvignon blanc.
From Formulas to Family Farming
Gone are the chemical solutions and lab equipment. In their place is Oswald Vineyard, 37 acres of dusty land just outside Brownfield, Texas, lined with rows of vines cradling five varieties of wine grapes.
“The people who knew me at Tech would be amazed that I left a 20-year career at a major chemical company to become a farmer,” John says. “I had never farmed before. A 30-foot garden was my greatest agricultural adventure before then, but I knew I could try.”
Oswald Vineyard is a family business. As the older kids graduated from high school, Oswald gave them a choice: college tuition or acres of their own grapes. Four children took the grape option. Now they help plant and maintain the crops.
Oswald Vineyard has added more acreage every year of its existence, and it now sells grapes to eight Texas wineries. Oswald recently invested in a harvesting machine and other farm equipment. Dina-Marie has her own food and lifestyle blog, Cultured Palate. The Oswalds have started producing their own wine and hope to open a tasting room in 2018.
The Confidence to Take a Chance
Oswald’s career switch came during the Great Recession of 2008. That big house in Mobile took five years to sell. The Oswalds used more of their savings and retirement funds then they had planned – all of it – and their vineyard house is still under construction.
Oswald sees the peaks and valleys of farming as part of a great American tradition. “I knew that the successful farmers were men just like me – they just took a chance every year to grow a crop,” he says. “Some years it would be great, other years they would barely scrape by. But they were not paralyzed by fear.”
Besides, he adds, “I really love working with my family.”
Oswald believes the decision to live a different life has its roots in his first months at Georgia Tech. He was in such a hurry to attend that he graduated from high school early. After a freshmen year at a smaller college, he transferred to Tech.
That’s when reality hit: A low score on his first organic chemistry test shook his confidence. He still liked chemistry, but no longer wanted to be a chemical engineer.
“My first quarter at Tech showed me how prideful I was,” Oswald says.
“I was from a big family, I was smart, and I was well-liked by my friends. But at Tech, my family was a hundred miles away, none of my high school friends were around, and everyone was really smart.”
He also found himself making a deep commitment to his faith. “I began to realize my standing before God,” he says. “Now I had a reason, apart from myself, to live, learn, and grow in this amazing world.” He soon would meet Dina-Marie at an evangelical campus ministry held at Tech.
Advice to Students
Oswald started to understand that he didn’t have to meet anyone’s expectations except his own. When his secure Ciba job suddenly didn’t seem that assured, Oswald says, “I had little fear of leaving it for the unknown.”
Oswald admits that striking out on his own in farming has been challenging and credits his wife for her support and patience. “Dina-Marie is amazing,” Oswald says. “She sees the benefit of what we have and has been willing to wait for the lifestyle we left to catch up with us. Our house here is still a shell except the basement, but work continues.”
Now blessed with 10 grandchildren, Oswald continues to learn about himself, thanks to his new career. From that eye-opening first semester at Tech comes his advice for first-year students.
“Don’t be intimidated by others’ bravado,” he says. “They are people just like you who make choices every day. Your choices might be different, but you are a different person. Your success is not measured by another’s estimation of you, your bank account, nor the facts and understanding that you master.”