Charles G. O’Brien
Class of 1956, BS
Charles OʼBrien grew up in the 1930s during the Great Depression in a town that no longer exists. Dan River Cotton Mills owned his village called Schoolfield. His frugal but happy childhood experience helped him turn into the generous philanthropist and volunteer he is today.
The boy who started out living in a two-room house is now retired with two homes, and has spent much of the past 12 years since his retirement continuing to donate his time and talents. He has traveled to Ghana, Slovakia, Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, and Honduras, lending his expertise to help with the privatizing of manufacturing facilities and aiding in disaster relief. The volunteer assignments were coordinated through the International Executive Service Corps, the Citizens Democracy Corps, and the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
OʼBrienʼs transition from working in a textile plant making minimum wage to an international management expert came through his own initiatives. He planned his “escape” from the mill as a teenager. Although the mill was good to the community, funding recreational facilities and athletic teams for students and housing for families, he knew he wanted a better career than this village (that would eventually become part of Danville, Virginia) could provide. So, in 1948, at 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
For the next four years, he served as a U.S. Navy patrol bomber air crewman, and took advantage of the militaryʼs electronics school. In 1952, the savvy young man left the Navy and used the GI Bill to pay for his industrial engineering education at Virginia Tech.
The military veteran became a member of the Virginia Tech chapters of Alpha Pi Mu and Tau Beta Pi, the industrial and engineering college honorary fraternities. He joined the German Club and was a member of the Civilian Student Government. “I learned an invaluable lesson at Virginia Tech that one of our responsibilities is service. The German Club especially encouraged this.
“Virginia Tech has since influenced me throughout my life. There is no one who loves Virginia Tech any more than I do, nor is there anyone who owes Virginia Tech any more than I do. My satisfaction in my field of work is due to Virginia Tech,” OʼBrien says with passion. And it was at Virginia Tech that he met his bride, Betsy Kenney, with whom he has recently celebrated his 50th anniversary.
When OʼBrien graduated in 1956, an engineering diploma was a hot commodity. From a variety of choices offered to him, he deliberately selected one of the lesser paying jobs with Armstrong World Industries because it would allow him to work with people and become a management trainee. OʼBrien worked his way up the corporate ladder, starting as a foreman and ending as the Executive Vice President of Thomasville Furniture Industries in North Carolina, a company with 6,500 employees at 21 plants in four states.
Although OʼBrien himself never built a piece of furniture, he had an admiration for the process. “Rough lumber would come into the plant and out would go a beautiful piece of furniture. And I really enjoyed North Carolina where there was a very strong work ethic.”
His concern for his employees over the years is reflected in these comments. “My most challenging times came when business was poor and there was a need to lay off people or shut down plants. We had to deal with the effects on families. I always tried to make decisions based on what was best for the majority of the people, and then try to help them bridge the gap, possibly through opportunities for job training or other transitions,” OʼBrien says.
He probably understood these types of hardships more than others, as his own parents never finished high school. But through hard work and diligence, his father went on to earn a general equivalency degree and later became group manager of five textile mills in Canada. “Dad was always thankful and loyal to the company,” his son recalls.
With his background, itʼs not surprising that his most satisfying volunteer work was in helping companies in Eastern bloc countries transition to the free market. “I would start with very basic principles. For example, in Bulgaria, I began with writing job descriptions, setting goals and objectives, and establishing pay differentials,” he explains. “We worked on plant layouts, production processes, work methods, production measurements, quality control, warehousing, marketing, and distribution.” He remains in contact today with the folks he met some six years ago.
His Russian experience was particularly challenging. Only one person spoke English in the plant where OʼBrien volunteered. And even more unusual: furniture designs for local companies had to be approved in Moscow.
At Virginia Tech, the OʼBriens are members of the Ut Prosim Society. He is a past recipient of the Industrial and Systems Engineering Departmentʼs Marvin Agee Distinguished Alumnus Award. He is a past member of both the ISE and the College of Engineeringʼs Advisory Boards. He is already a member of the ISE Academy of Distinguished Alumni.
At 75, OʼBrien has slowed down his volunteer work around the world, and now he and Betsy travel mostly between their homes in Blacksburg, Virginia, and in Pensacola Beach, Florida.
In his communities, OʼBrien is active in the Presbyterian Church, and he is a past chairman of the Board of Directors of the Community General Hospital in Thomasville, North Carolina, the Thomasville Community Foundation, and an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville. He is also a former member of the Board of Directors of the Thomasville Furniture Industries, Thomasville Upholstery, Gordonʼs Inc., and Fayette Enterprises. He is a past director in his community of some 16 different organizations including the American Red Cross, Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, and the United Way.
OʼBrien and his wife have two sons, Charles, Jr., (Coby) a graduate of Syracuse University, who is currently teaching and working on his doctorate in mass communications at the University of South Florida, and Christopher, a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology, who is a freelancer with the New York Times.
Class of: 1956
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007