She enters the lobby of The Reese building in downtown Harlingen with a purpose. Just a couple minutes late, Jo Rae Wagner is quick to apologize.
“I knew you would be waiting,” she says as she lays down her purse.
Her welcoming eyes and kind smile make it easy to forget the minor tardiness. A handshake and a pleasant greeting, and it’s as if we have known each other for years. Those few minutes earlier of concern, wondering if she remembered our interview, is long gone.
Wearing a perfectly-fitting black dress with the appropriate accessories and her signature high heels, Jo Rae is the epitome of class and elegance. But those aren’t the only words that should be used to describe her.
You would be remissed not to mention several others … strong, tough, professional, successful, personable and intelligent.
Jo Rae Wagner has spent much of her life in what most would consider a man’s world – the plumbing business.
Despite her small stature and the fact that she is a woman, she has been successful and in some ways trend setting in her endeavors.
Jo Rae Wagner
It is wonderful to have a family and I wouldn’t trade my kids for anything. But, have a fallback and be a person in your own right before you can share with someone else. Life has a way of handing you things you didn’t plan on. You have to have a way to support yourself and do it. I don’t think any woman should be vulnerable.”
Along with her husband and stepfather, Jo Rae helped build CTO plumbing business from two employees and one truck more than 40 years ago to a $20 million business today.
Now, she is retired from the day-today operations of CTO Inc., acting as the president of the board of the business she helped build right here in the Valley, back in 1973.
However, like many successful people, retirement the way most of us think of it was not in the cards for Jo Rae.
Instead, she can be found daily during lunch and dinner at her Italian restaurant on the ground floor of her 72,000-square-foot building known as The Reese in downtown Harlingen. She greets those who enter her restaurant and constantly walks the floor making sure the front of the house and back of the house are working in perfect harmony.
The purchase, renovation and effort to lease out the rest of the building, too, are part of what she calls a “hobby.”
But there’s a lot more to Jo Rae than just plumbing and Italian food.
“I was raised by a single mom,” Jo Rae says. “She worked extremely hard and that meant that I really grew up bringing myself up.”
Although Jo Rae has since made peace with her mother and situation, it was a difficult time. She left home when she was a junior in high school in California.
“I told my mother if she married again, I would not stick around,” she says. “That was after her third (marriage).”
Jo Rae never really knew her father. He was a merchant seaman and she was “lucky” to see him every eight or nine years. It was Jo Rae’s stepfather, who she calls her father, who led her into the plumbing business.
He was a commercial plumbing contractor and would take her to job estimates on the weekends. Even in high school, she admitted to being fascinated looking at blueprints and trying to figure out what he was doing.
That was during an era when women were not in the construction and technical workplace. She later worked for and managed a firm in California that worked plumbing on Navy ships.
“They did all the bulkheads and mess halls,” Jo Rae says.
But, that wasn’t enough to keep her and her husband in the “rat race” in California. They were both ready to leave.
It was the early 1970s. That’s when they found the Rio Grande Valley. Initially, the plan was to go to Corpus Christi, but Jo Rae and her now late husband were told about the RGV. This is where she’s been ever since.
“In a lot of ways, it was more robust than it is now,” she says about the area. “It was the same as far as being a friendly and quiet place to live. Harlingen, Brownsville and McAllen were all about the same size at that time. Harlingen was centrally located, so we decided this was the best place.”
“If I had to go out and dig ditches with a trencher, I would go out and do that,” Jo Rae says about her early career in plumbing. “I crawled into holes nobody else would fit in.”
But, it was still a man’s world.
“When we had 40 or 50 people in a crew when I managed the job, they would look somewhere else when I was giving an order,” she says.
Although she says, she may not have realized it at the time, but that mentality was changing gradually.
In 2001, it changed significantly.
That’s when Jo Rae was appointed to the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Texas Association. After a year there, she was appointed the state’s national representative. Jo Rae says she served four years as the only woman on the 39-member national board.
“The dress code was slacks, jacket and a tie,” she says. “If I didn’t wear a tie and follow the attire rule, I had to give $100 to the educational foundation. I wore a tie for four years.”
She had by then garnered plenty of respect, so was asked to run to be the organization’s president. Jo Rae beat out a pair of men to take the position at the national level. She made sure to get even for having to wear a tie for four years.
“I had the chance to make the attire rules,” she says with a grin. “Slacks, jacket, skirt is appropriate and you have to wear panty hose.”
At the first meeting, she said proudly, the educational foundation received $3,800.
She admits, her board was able to accomplish a lot during her tenure. That was one thing the men realized – women could get things done.
She also traveled extensively, putting on 150,000 air miles in two years and traveling all over the country, including many trips to Washington D.C.
But it was all worth it. Jo Rae believes her tenure as president changed everything, including atmosphere and participation.
“Women are involved in the husband’s business without titles and not as stockholders,” he says. “I would tell them, if your wife is doing all your financials – why isn’t she a stockholder or why doesn’t she have a title?”
Jo Rae had the title at CTO and the respect, but it didn’t truly hit her until one day.
“When my son announced I had been elected (to the national board), we were having a safety meeting,” she says about CTO. “They stood up and gave me a standing ovation. They got me to tears.”
Another special and similar moment came when she left the national board office at the convention. She was so adored, they called her the Yellow Rose of Texas.
“There were people crying and people had given me gifts,” she says. “It was so amazing.”
Those proud moments in her own life now turn to her family. She beams while talking about her granddaughter Megan, who like her is a reader and has big dreams – to attend Harvard one day.
“Now my grandkids give me the greatest moments,” she says.
Jo Rae is teaching her granddaughter how to be the strong woman she, herself has become and may always have been.
“If a girl says I just want to have a husband and kids, I say, ‘oh, can’t you do both?’” she says. “It is wonderful to have a family and I wouldn’t trade my kids for anything. But, have a fallback and be a person in your own right before you can share with someone else. Life has a way of handing you things you didn’t plan on. You have to have a way to support yourself and do it. I don’t think any woman should be vulnerable.”
That is one word that can’t be used to describe Jo Rae. Comfortable in her life and in who she is, Jo Rae couldn’t be in a better place than she is now.
“Along the way, nobody stays the same day-to-day,” she says. “We all grow. The older I get, the more I realize the important people are your family. At the end of the day, money is not the issue, health and family are.”
Growing up in a male dominated profession has helped Jo Rae Wagner excel.
That’s one reason why she thinks women should look at every industry when choosing their future careers.
She says there’s no reason why women shouldn’t focus on theprofessions that are desperate for people – such as construction and technical jobs.
“The average age of a plumber is 56 years old and their wages are going up all the time,” she says. “Why should women be afraid of that? Women feel comfortable having a woman plumber come in and work in their house.”
She also believes women have an advantage in some respects – such as hand dexterity and the ability to use both sides of the brain.
But, she also stresses that women who become leaders and powerful need to be careful.
“I would tell young girls, first of all, women with power have a problem,” she says. “We do.”
Wagner says fellow women tend to tear each other apart.
“Women have to be careful when they have any kind of power to make sure they are using it wisely,” she says. “It’s not what you are saying, it is how you are saying it. That is true most of the time.”
Wagner believes those who can master that, will be successes.
“Young girls now have absolutely no barriers,” she says. “Whatever they want to get into, they can.”
• Came to the Valley in 1973
• She’s lived in 12 different states, including Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona and New York
• Attended a school that was a converted bug hatchery
• Is widowed
• Never attended college
• Reads at least three books per month