For Water and Wastewater Operations Director Marie Leal, P.E., talking about football, hunting, fishing, yard work, and “shop talk” is all a part of leading one of the biggest divisions at the Brownsville Public Utilities Board (BPUB). Leal, who oversees the Water and Wastewater Engineering, Operations and Construction, Combination Lift Stations and Plant Maintenance departments, says she “grew up in a man’s world” because of her career choice where women were once a rarity. Lucky for her, she naturally enjoys those topics as much as she enjoys talking about the newest shade of lipstick.
Since her humble beginnings, Leal says her “no excuses” attitude helped her to establish a work ethic and ambition to advance her education, even though she did not learn English until she was 8 years old. She credits her good foundation to Pace High School math teacher Perla Zarate, who made math fun. Additionally, Leal credits teacher Mary Wagner, as her “big influence” because of Wagner’s passion for preparing students. Leal recalls that her teacher requested special permission to create a calculus class for a handful of students who wanted to take more advanced math to prepare them for their chosen college courses. Leal laughs recalling the class was taught in the only room available, a “closet-sized” space next to the Principal’s office.
Leal discovered early on that she had a natural affinity for math and architecture and intended to major in architectural engineering. By chance, she won several scholarships for aspiring civil engineers. While at Texas A&I in Kingsville, Texas (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville), she discovered that civil engineering was what she was interested in pursuing.
To supplement her scholarships, she earned her campus room and board by working as a dorm resident adviser, and for the University Engineer. Summer vacations found Leal working to pay tuition and expenses at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) San Benito offices helping professional engineers with calculations, learning drafting and even cleaning engineering material. One of her first major jobs was with survey crews constructing Bayview Road. She recalls grueling but fun “blue topping” work, a back-breaking manual process using a hammer and bristles to guide road crews, in the summer heat. Leal says this was education in the way that college does not prepare budding engineers. Above all, she learned to stand her ground and thrive in a field dominated by men.
Leal, was the only woman in a graduating class of 15 in Bachelor of Science in civil engineering.
Upon graduation, Leal began a graduate engineer position at the TxDOT in San Benito. Her first major task was as a project inspector. Leal drove from job site to job site through the blistering Rio Grande Valley heat in a car with no air conditioning. Leal would handle all types of road construction jobs, including walking behind the paving machine to ensure jobs where done to specification.
“This was invaluable knowledge about how to implement plans and deal with contractors as an engineer,” Leal said.
“The biggest satisfaction in civil engineering is knowing that the end result of your work will benefit the community. So you always go in putting your best effort into your work,” Leal said. “Seeing something that you worked on and had a hand in building is really rewarding.”
Her commitment to excellence and her ability to infuse her attention to detail into projects and plans made her a much sought-after professional. Despite numerous offers from firms who tried to hire her away from TxDOT over the years, Leal says her mind was set on a lifelong career there. Creating very comprehensive and highly meticulous plans with specifications that any contractor could readily read and apply is a Leal hallmark. Developed over years of experience, Leal also has a knack for communicating finer points of job plans from regulatory boards to work crews.
Eventually, one firm, Martin and Brown (Harlingen, Texas) succeeded in signing Leal. For the next 20 years, she shared a business partnership with Jack Brown and became 51 percent owner and CEO of the company. This period in her life allowed her the flexibility to be a working mother to two children, Eric and Andrea, while being an active member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Texas Society of Professional Engineers.
Her professional reputation was solidified as a goal-oriented engineer with grit and her down-to-brass-tacks, no-nonsense approach prompted one developer to declare to a young relative, “Son, if you have half the drive as her, you’re going to make something of yourself in life.”
After her children moved away from home, Leal said the stresses of being a small business owner for most of her professional career began to make her re-think her career path. As a new empty-nester, Leal says she was open to the opportunity when the BPUB began seeking a new water/wastewater division director.
“Working with a municipal utility that is responsible for water and wastewater has all the same demands of the private sector,” Leal said. “I just apply the same level of professionalism and common sense and multiply that to meet a bigger scale.”
Leal says cultivating and working with her employees and seeing the quality work put forth by her division is the most rewarding work she does. Her staff’s attitude and like-minded commitment make dealing with issues like aging infrastructure and daily operations and maintenance—an issue faced by most other municipal water providers across the country– enjoyable.
Her advice to young professionals is, “Always focus on what you are out there for. Deal with the business at hand. Whether it’s excavating in trenches or anything else, do whatever it takes to do the best job possible.”
Considering herself still a rookie at the utility (she joined BPUB in 2015), Leal says her BPUB career goals include learning all about a full-service municipal utility, including the electrical operations side. About that, she admits, “I still have a lot to learn.”
From time to time, Leal is asked by local high schools and colleges to speak at Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) lectures or sit on panels for young professionals. Her influence on young women majoring in science or engineering is also not lost on educators.
Leal says, “My best advice to anybody seeking an engineering degree is to take tons of math and science early on (before you get to college). No matter how hard you may think your basics are, stick to it. It gets easier,” she said. “Aim to be the best at what you do. Adopt a no-excuses philosophy, give 200 percent and never have any regrets or a ‘should have’ or ‘would have’ mentality.”
When not at work, Leal enjoys the outdoors, traveling, cooking, arts, crafts, sewing and relaxing at home among a few close friends and family as well as spending time with her four-legged canine “third child”, Scooby.