• Volume 14  Number 2  Spring 2005

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Just 27
Kodiak hasn’t done it all ... yet
Tom Kodiak posed with the tools of his trade.
Photos provided
Looking equal parts sumo wrestler and cowboy, bonsai apprentice Tom Kodiak posed with the tools of his trade amid the 1,000 bonsai trees he cared for at the Shunkaien Bonsai Nursery and Museum in 2001.

About 50,000 people submitted applications to appear on the popular television show The Apprentice. Tom Kodiak, BS ’00, was one of them.

That the Naperville, Ill., native didn’t get to sit at the big table with Donald Trump, the king of the comb-over, did not matter. He did not expect, nor particularly want, the chance to be humiliated on network television. So why put on a suit, drive to Washington, D.C., and spend a day interviewing with a bunch of people he didn’t even know for a show he didn’t even watch?

“It was all about the experience,” Kodiak says. “I just wanted to find out what they expect of the people on the show and what kind of people are driven to actually try to get on The Apprentice. To me, everything in life is all about the experience. I want to see what the world has to offer.”

There are those who stroll through life on the road less traveled. But Tom Kodiak would rather be four-wheeling it through life where there are no roads at all.

“My philosophy in life is that if you don’t take a chance, you will never win,” says Kodiak, who has been, among other things, an honest-to-goodness Colorado cowboy, an English teacher in Japan, an apprentice to a bonsai master, a pilgrim to a string of Buddhist temples, a network television show candidate and a graduate student. And if things go as planned, he will be working on a project for the princess of Cambodia to help organize her nation’s silk industry.

All by the age of 27.

Tom Kodiak with Japanese students.
Tom Kodiak was popular with his Japanese students, often incorporating rope tricks into his daily lesson plan.

“That kid has done more in the last few years than most of us have done in an entire lifetime,” says Mike Stitsworth, a former adviser in Purdue Agriculture’s Study Abroad program and a traveler of some renown.

“He’s been places I would never go,” admits Stitsworth. “And he’s done things most of us would never have the nerve to do.”

For example, he says he’s thinking about moving to Mongolia once his graduate work is completed.

“I think that place is just ripe with business opportunities,” says Kodiak, who is keeping his options open.

“I think we’ll see things really starting to open up in Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam. And I’m also looking at opportunities in Singapore, the Netherlands and Sweden.”

Kodiak spent time in Sweden while participating in Purdue’s International Programs in Agriculture in 1998. And while Sweden may not seem as exotic as Mongolia or Singapore, it is a place full of warm memories for Kodiak.

“It seems that most people who go overseas to study go to England, Ireland, or other traditionally English-speaking countries,” Kodiak says.

Tom's favorite places to visit.“I wanted to try something different. Living and studying in Sweden changed my entire view of how to live, work and enjoy life. Their work schedule is much lighter than Americans, and they seem to enjoy their life away from work so much more than us.”

Friends and family members hoped to rope Cowboy Kodiak (his e-mail address) into a stateside career riding the range of his grandfather’s 41,000-acre cattle ranch near Hatsel, Colo. He worked on the Rollin’ High Sipal Ranch, caring for its 4,200 head of cattle, as a summer job between school years at Purdue.

The summer experience would make him a perfect ranch manager. Finish your degree, his family thought, go west, young man, and become a cattle baron. Seemed easy enough.

“But that wasn’t for me,” Kodiak declares. “If I was going to take care of animals, I figured they better be mine and not somebody else’s. My grandfather (Oldrich Sipal) started in America with nothing, but now he owns a huge ranch. I want to be like him, but I don’t want to be him. I want to do something myself.”

Oh, he still headed west, but this time, his destination wasn’t a saddle in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, but a schoolhouse in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Japan.

Kodiak enlisted in the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) program for a three-year stint as an English teacher in Kuki City, teaching English to middle school students, often relying on props from his days as a ranch hand to bridge the language barrier.

“I used all sorts of things to help me in the classroom,” Kodiak says. “I had all kinds of pictures, my old hockey jerseys, maps of the U.S. and the ranch and videos of my house, family and the ranch. They were amazed with the cattle drives.”

And, oh, how the kids were reduced to a gaggle of gigglers when the gaijin (foreigner) would break out the chaps, cowboy hat and lariat and perform rope tricks.

“Japan is an incredible place,” Kodiak says. “It is a lot like the United States. Once you get out of New York City, the people are amazingly nice. The same is true of Japan. Once you get out of Tokyo, everybody really goes out of their way to be nice to you.”

Kodiak immersed himself in Japanese culture. His knowledge of the Japanese language was limited to about 60 words. So he offered roping demonstrations at town festivals as a way to break the ice with his Japanese hosts.

He traveled to the remote southern islands to walk the rigorous pilgrim trail connecting several Buddhist temples on Japan’s southern islands, a string of pearls smaller than his grandfather’s ranch.

Profile continued on next page