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All great relationships begin in a lunch line. That’s the reflection I had after Marlene Eick interviewed me for her podcast (check out episode 67 of Live Your Story) and I subsequently interviewed her for this blog feature. Even though Marlene and I grew up one county apart and attended The Ohio State University 3 years apart, we didn’t meet until we were in the lunch line at the AmericanHort young professional’s conference, where we were both keynote speakers. We knew from there we needed to meet and chat small town upbringing, 4-H, and living the coaching and speaking life. I hope you enjoy learning more about Marlene’s journey from a small town to making it big as a business owner, life coach, speaker and podcast host.

Where did you grow up? Marlene grew up outside Jenera, Ohio, a town of about 200 in the northwest part of the state. Her parents had a swine and grain farm when she was young and her childhood revolved around life on the farm, time at church and school, and activities in 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America).

What has been your geographic journey from the time you left your small town? After graduating from her high school class of 75 students in 2001, she attended The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and then moved to Gainesville, Florida, to complete a graduate program at the University of Florida. Marlene spent a summer in both Des Moines and Denver along the way for internships. When she finished her master’s degree, she moved back to Ohio and has been here since. She’s enjoyed living outside the towns of Wooster (population 26,000) and Radnor (population 201) in the Buckeye state.

What is your professional journey? After completing a graduate program in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication at the University of Florida, Marlene came back to Ohio and spent a few years working at Ohio State, both in Wooster and Columbus. She taught undergraduate courses and worked with incoming students. After leaving the university, Marlene and her husband B.J. created Herdmark Media. B.J. leads the day-to-day activities at Herdmark, while Marlene works with Millennial leaders as a career coach, speaker, and host of the Live Your Story podcast. Most of whom are connected to agriculture and/or a rural lifestyle.

How has your small town upbringing allowed you to be successful in your professional life? The work ethic and responsibility mindset learned while growing up on a farm continues to serve Marlene each day. Her upbringing on the farm and in a small town has allowed her to quickly relate and connect with the clients she serves and the audiences she reaches. As you listen to her podcast, you’ll pick up on this immediately. Farm kids have lived 9 lives before they leave home and Marlene is able to recall the adventures of raising pigs to playing the piano to spending time with her grandparents. She’s able to combine the relatability to an instinctive appreciation for the farming and agricultural environment and the opportunities and challenges that come with it.

Her work ethic was learned very early. Life revolved around what was going on the farm. Her family’s typical vacation was to go to pig shows and the Ohio State Fair. While she didn’t have daily chores that would interfere with school work or activities, she and her two brothers had certain responsibilities on the farm. Marlene’s responsibly was to process the baby pigs, which means she would vaccinate, dock their tails and castrate them. In a typical year, she would process 2500 baby pigs.

An early start on the pig farm

When did you have your first “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” moment? Marlene’s transition from her hometown to college coincided with 9/11. At the time, classes began in mid-September and Marlene was packing the day of the attack. She moved to campus early to be an OWL (Orientation Welcome Leader) and when she was sitting in the lobby of Scott House, her residence hall made up mostly of other farm kids, someone brought up that because Ohio State is on the flight path for the Columbus airport, they would see planes frequently. Until that moment, she didn’t give this a passing thought, but then had a lingering worry in the back of her mind.

Marlene said she doesn’t know what that transition would have been like had 9/11 not happened, but it was a pretty stark “before” and “after”. She wasn’t old enough to grasp the full weight of it all, but in the span of one week, she went from being a kid from a town of 200 where life felt safe and secure to a student on a campus of 50,000 who knew the world was now different.

What experience is the most memorable from your time in a small town? Marlene’s small town was mostly settled by families coming from Germany in the 1830s. Some of the early families survived a shipwreck en route, which is commemorated each year by the area Lutheran congregations on the third Sunday of September, called Shipwreck Sunday. Marlene enjoyed remembering the history each year. She loved feeling like she was part of a big, connected family.

The idea of being part of a big, connected family is a central theme to small town life. When you are in a small town, it feels like you are related to everyone, and when you go to parochial school, which Marlene did, you are related to even more people. For example, her kindergarten class had 18 kids (a BIG class for the town) and when her grandma asked to see the class roster, she noted that Marlene was related to all but 3 of the kids, 2 of whom were the pastor’s kids.

Marlene’s Kindergarten Class

What advice would you give kids who are growing up in your hometown today? Go out and see the world past your town and your county and your state. You don’t have to move away (although if you do, you can always come back), and experiencing more of the world will help you both appreciate your town and solve its problems because of your diverse perspectives.

Marlene knew other people lived differently from her, and it became apparent through her adventures living outside of her small family community. For her, it was normal to do her homework in the truck in the grain elevator in the fall. She put her candy purchases on the family tab at the local co-op. She realizes now this was not everyone’s normal and it makes her appreciate how she learned to have responsibility and relate to people at a young age.

These were the days!

What has been your greatest observation from working with other rural and small town leaders throughout your career? Most of Marlene’s podcast guests are other women working in agriculture, living in rural America, or building their business around the two. The word she uses to describe these women is: purposeful. They are intentional about designing their lives. They’ve said, “here is what I want my life to look like and here’s how I’m going to do that” versus living by default. Not only are they living their stories, but they are also writing their stories.

How can small town alumni who moved away from their community continue to provide support to those in their hometown? One of Marlene’s favorite ways is to offer connections whenever possible. Especially in today’s world where you can keep tabs on the interests of your high school friends’ children or the travel goals of your cousins, it’s wonderful to offer connections to people who could help with a college visit, a recommendation on a vacation spot, or an event they might like.

We also need to remember the places that built us. If that was a 4-H club or an FFA chapter or a teacher’s classroom or an organized sport or a church youth group, consider how you could support those same groups today from a distance. It might be financial gifts, or a video conference chat to talk about your work, or connections to another resource. You may have moved away, but you can still offer support and also honor them by supporting similar groups in your new community.

What is the most important lesson you took with you from your small town upbringing? Community matters. Whether it’s your biological grandparents and cousins or the people in your church or the folks on the volunteer fire department – in a small town, people look out for each other and are there for each other. No matter where you live, it’s critical to create that community for yourself and to be that kind of community for others.

Marlene has loved playing piano for her entire life. She had to learn to read and then she was allowed to take piano lessons. After a few years of riding her bike to her $2 piano lesson with Mrs. Reinke, she began to master songs from the hymnal and Mrs. Reinke transitioned her to another teacher to begin organ lessons. It was very clear that Mrs. Reinke was cultivating her to become a church musician, which Marlene didn’t recognize at the time. Marlene is still an organist at church on occasion. In a small town, people recognize talents in young people and have the desire to say, “I want to cultivate that an encourage them.”

An early passion for piano

Marlene misses this right now. If she belonged to the church where she grew up, she would be looking at all of the kids and figure out how she could help bring them up. In a small town, everyone seems everyone everywhere and you build long-term relationships at an early age.

In a small town, everyone raises the kids.

Thank you, Marlene, for sharing your story! If you would like to reach out to Marlene, you can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Imagine if every kid living in a small town today thinking “I’m just a kid from a small town destined to be average” read this? Do your part and share it with someone who could use the motivation!

Do you know someone who has a great small town success story? Contact me and let me know!

Do you know a small town kid who has huge potential? I’d love to connect with them to find out how a fellow small town girl can coach them to success.


Small Town Leadership Founder; Natalie believes everything she needed to know to succeed in her career she learned by growing up in a town of 600 people. As a Certified Professional Coach and award-winning public speaker, she helps her clients and audiences make wherever they are feel like a small town. She lives in Dublin, Ohio with her husband, Rob, a professor at Ohio State and two little girls.

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