Elizabeth Suarez was well on her way to law school before deciding to take an interview with the City of McAllen on Christmas Eve 1999.
Suarez was a graduate student at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio when a human resources manager from McAllen’s city government made a recruiting visit to the campus. A transit manager job opportunity was available. A political science undergraduate degree to go with graduate-level studies in the same field did not appear to be a good fit for Suarez and a city government job.
A formal job interview was then set up for when Suarez would be back home for the holidays. Suarez decided to follow through with the appointment with Derald Lary. Tests and challenges would come from Lary, McAllen’s director of aviation and transportation. He also a retired three-star lieutenant general, once serving as the inspector general for the U.S. Air Force.
“You’ve never been a supervisor. How do I know you can lead?” Suarez recalled Lary asking her early in the job interview.
The response she gave about working her way through college and managing workers without a formal title at the Rivercenter Marriott surely impressed. The retired general would hire and soon promote the 24-year-old McAllen native. Suarez would set up and then run the city’s new central bus terminal. It would mark the beginning of a two-decade career in city government that has seen Suarez rise to the highest levels of city leadership.
Today, Suarez is the director of aviation for the City of McAllen and manages operations at the McAllen International Airport. She also occupies the same office where Lary once sat. A photo of the late general is among family pictures in her office, as is the same world map Lary hung up in his days as the aviation director.
She projects confidence and an innate toughness. Suarez’s ascension was based on both accomplishment and a diligence to take on difficult projects. An emphasis on her youth and gender does not define her successes.
“They knew I was really smart, and I was allowed to grow into jobs and opportunities I was given,” Suarez said. “I want to be the best director I can be. I don’t want to be labelled.”
Being the first Hispanic and woman to run a Rio Grande Valley airport are not distinctions Suarez highlights. She would rather talk about her airport having 48 percent of market share in the Valley and 2019 being a record year with 432,000 passengers originating their flights in McAllen.
Suarez details the life lessons taught by Lary and other mentors as she ascended in city government. They are insights that certainly continue to guide her.
“Stand your ground and be able to defend what you want,” Suarez said. “Your recommendations need to come from a place of thought.”
It’s a practical style of leadership – and in Suarez’s case – learned from the ground up.