Mar 02, 2017

Grace Period

Texas Water Quality Assn. matriarch fosters community & career growth

Gardens can be fickle things. There is an intimacy in caring for them, in knowing how to grow each plant, and it takes tenacity to try again when the first attempt at growth fails. Some plants do not like to be near others, and others need to be watered at specific intervals. Jo Grace’s garden is in Texas, where she has tended the careers of many promising sprouts through the Texas Water Quality Assn. (TWQA).

Their careers have bloomed with her encouragement, but none have blossomed quite as well as Water Quality Assn. (WQA) President Don McGhee, who attributes his success to Jo’s nurturing.

When McGhee accepted the position of WQA president in 2016, he expressed gratitude to his wife and family for their understanding as he pursued a career that demanded a lot of his time and energy. In that same breath, he thanked Jo. She instilled in him the confidence to reach beyond his goals—and she became more than just his coach and mentor.

“I’m not sure I would have sought some of these roles out if it had not been for her encouragement … I don’t want to let down coach. I don’t want to let down Mom,” said McGhee, who first met Jo when she recruited him to the TWQA board of directors in the early 1990s. McGhee had never attended a meeting before Jo asked him to sit on the board, but she saw potential in him.

Jo has an uncanny vision for how people will develop and to what heights they will ascend. She sees a grand future for those she cares about and encourages them to take action and achieve that destiny. When they feel down, she raises them up. If they are overconfident or arrogant, she will pull them out of the clouds. But more than anything, it is genuine selflessness that has made her an industry icon.

Such Good Graces

In the early years of their marriage, Jo and her husband, Richard “Dick” Grace, were constantly on the move. Dick had an executive position with the Boy Scouts of America that required him to move the family—which included their four children, Rick, Kathy, Sally and Roger—around the country for work. Even then, Jo was constantly involved in community activities and volunteer work. But when Jo’s parents, Robert and Katharyn Ely, announced the sale of their Culligan dealership in Victoria, Texas, in 1970, Jo and Dick decided to take over the business and find some stability. Dick still traveled for work, and Jo ran the office at home, becoming the local face of the dealership.

In those traveling years before running the dealership, celebrating the holidays—namely Thanksgiving and Christmas—was difficult to do with extended family. Other households often opened their doors to Jo and Dick for holiday meals. So when the two settled in Victoria, they made a point of opening up their home as others had done for them.

“We always tended to invite people who had no family to join us for holidays,” Jo said. “Suffice to say that when we had 12 people one year for one holiday, my son wanted to know where everybody was … It is sad when people don’t have some place to go on a holiday. We always love to have them at our table, and if they can put up with us, why, the more the merrier.”

It is not uncommon for more than 20 people to sit down to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at the Grace household. Daina Grace, Jo’s daughter-in-law and current TWQA director, said Jo’s generosity is one of her most admirable qualities. It is a trait she witnessed firsthand when she began dating Jo’s son Rick in the 1970s.

“I was always in awe of the fact that she was so friendly. It didn’t matter if you were a stranger off the street. She didn’t know me at all. She just took everybody in and welcomed you with open arms,” said Daina, who bought Jo and Dick’s Culligan business in 1994 with her husband.

Jo and Dick once even literally brought home strangers off the street. The couple stopped to help a family whose car had broken down on the side of the road, recalled Jo’s daughter Kathy Grace-Stratmann. They brought the couple home and contacted a local mechanic to fix the car.

“That family had come back several times—they lived in Mexico—and they would go up north and they would either call or come back. They were very grateful for the help,” Grace-Stratmann said. “Just opening up their home in that instance, they were invited to the wedding of one of the kids.”

Jo spends a lot of time and energy making sure those she cares about do not feel alone. Often her first instinct is, “How can I help?” Jo likes to be on the ground floor, in the thick of the action, mingling and talking.

“She’s not out at the podium during [the Opening] General Session [at trade shows]. That’s not her thing. She’s a person that’s back in a support process,” McGhee said. “A lot of that is how she will make people feel comfortable, people who are coming to industry meetings for the first time. She made sure that she identified who you were, made sure people were introduced to you and made sure you were made to feel welcome by participating with the group.”

Jo breaks down barriers that often can isolate people from one another. When her husband of 44 years died, roles were reversed with those she cared about, as Jo’s friends made sure she was not alone. While she continued her regular bridge gatherings with friends, she also had a spell of “running away from home.”

Prior to his passing, Dick and Jo had planned to travel in their motor home to dealerships across the country to offer advice to businesses and give owners of smaller dealerships reprieve from their duties. Although Dick could not join her, Jo still went on that trip. She temporarily managed a dealership in north Texas, converted water treatment businesses to updated computer programs, and trained individuals along the way.

Say Your Grace

Jo’s experience moving from state to state early in her marriage and years of trade show attendance have made her adept at navigating social circles, especially professional ones. It is nearly impossible to miss speaking with her at events because she is among the first to greet people as they pick up registration badges.

“There are two places to be at a trade show: behind the registration desk or behind the bar,” Jo said with a hearty laugh.

Behind that registration desk, she can visit with every attendee and make newcomers feel welcome, just as she was welcomed when she first entered the industry. In her early days in the water industry, men dominated ownership and management. Although that is still the case to some extent, Jo never saw that culture as an obstacle to her success.

“I never felt like I was discriminated against. I wasn’t deterred by that. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t even think there was anything wrong with it,” Jo said.

McGhee said it was not uncommon for women to have power and authority in the industry. “Ultimately, if you talk to the presidents and dads ... they would tell you they would have never gone anywhere without the dynamic strength that their spouse brought to the business,” he said.

Any challenges Jo faced as a woman in the industry were crushed by her determination. Jo does not mince words. “She would tell you how the cow ate cabbage,” McGhee said. Jo helped carve a way for women—like Pauli Undesser, the first female executive director of WQA—to ascend to positions of influence in the industry.

Unrelenting, Meticulous Mentor

Jo commanded—and still commands—respect in the industry. She was the face of the Culligan dealership in Victoria and ascended to the position of director of TWQA—an association her parents helped found. She became a water conditioning and treatment icon in Texas because she strived to be nothing less than her best, a quality her mentees are driven to emulate.

“She doesn’t ever do anything halfway. She’s going to help. She’s going to be in there with both feet, both arms. She’s going to be there and she’s going to do everything she can, which is a trait she got from her mother,” Daina said.

McGhee admitted he would not be where he is without Jo’s mentorship. It was as if Jo had premonitions about his career path before even he knew his aspirations.

“She had vision that I didn’t have, and I laugh about it because maybe it means that she had forgotten her glasses and wasn’t seeing very well,” McGhee said wryly. “She was very integral in always encouraging me to stay active and participate in the industry.”

Before his involvement with TWQA, McGhee had worked for half a decade near the southern border of Texas in the water treatment industry, mostly in Mexico. He found success with companies moving to Mexico, despite the area’s economic struggles and less-than-ideal infrastructure. Realizing he needed more knowledge and education to properly help his clients, he attended WQA events to network and bolster his understanding of the industry.

“You get to glean and take away so many business-related things,” McGhee said. He attributes much of his early career growth to discussions at those events. “The more I participated at the committee level, at the board level and the leadership level at TWQA, the more I received,” he said.

But the first big change for McGhee came in the early ‘90s, when Jo “roped [him] onto the TWQA board.” She then pushed and prodded him to get increasingly involved with the organization, and in March 2017, he completes his term as president of the WQA. Similarly, Daina said Jo has also been instrumental in her career path.

“She’s been like a second mom to me. She taught me from the very minute I walked into the business. ‘You start in the front. You work from the ground up. You learn every job here,’” Daina said. “She’s actually the reason I do Texas Water Quality [Assn.].”

Jo has a gift of seeing the big picture, seeing that looking beyond one’s company for the betterment of the industry could be instrumental in pushing that company to the next level. If the industry benefits, so will business. “She’s always had this bigger vision, that what we can do as an industry is so much more than what we can do as individual companies,” McGhee said.

Her vision may be grand at times, McGhee said, but Jo also is “meticulous about the minutia … She always reminded me that the expectation was to keep moving.” Jo forced McGhee to take care of the business in front of him before tackling the larger issues, because she knew completing those tasks would develop the skills he needed as his career grew.

Even as WQA president, he has asked her for guidance, and as she is wont to do, Jo is always willing to help.

In her free time, Jo:

  • Plays bridge on an almost daily basis with her friends. “It’s social. I don’t care whether I win or not, but I enjoy playing,” Jo said. “It’s a game that keeps your mind active ... We laugh and say that’s our job these days.”
  • Travels and goes on cruises with her friend, Jo Chanek. A member of Jo’s bridge group, Chanek was a source of brief discomfort for Jo’s son, Rick, at dinner one night. He had thought Chanek was a Joe rather than a Jo. “Rick is just as uncomfortable as if he were sitting on tacks. He’s just squirming,” Daina recalled, noting Rick finally asked if Chanek was a man or a woman. “His mother never skipped a beat. She looked at him and goes, ‘Does it matter?’”
  • Watches tennis matches. For her 75th birthday, Jo and her grandson, Brad, traveled to London for the Wimbledon tournament. Despite her age, the two camped along the fence line to see matches from the “front row seats in Center Court.” In 2015, Jo and Chanek traveled to Dubai, where they saw Roger Federer and Novak Djokovich play a match. “It was one of the most delightful trips I’ve ever had,” Jo said.
  • Helps the Texas Water Quality Assn. in whatever ways she can.
  • Visits with her grandchildren and attends their band performances.  
  • Attends church services and participates in community events. “I try to participate in the community because I think it’s necessary that people support the school systems and the activities of the community,” Jo said.

Accolades & Awards

  • WQA Key Award 1993
  • WQA Convention and Exposition Chair in San Antonio
  • TWQA Director
  • WQA Lifetime Membership Award 1997
  • Gilbert Boerner Award
  • Jo Grace Scholarship Fund

Other travel destinations include:

  • Alaska
  • The Rose Bowl game and parade in Pasadena, Calif.
  • Road trip to Mackinac Island, Mich.; Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.; across Canada and back to the Black Hills, S.D.; to enjoy the atmosphere of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D.
  • Mt. Rushmore

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