Tumbleweed Smith
Tumbleweed Smith

Jo Rae Wagner of Harlingen has had some unique experiences in the plumbing business.

”I ran heavy equipment out in the field, I did project management, estimating and purchasing, just about everything involved in big plumbing jobs.

When I first went to work here in the valley the guys didn’t like taking orders from a female. They didn’t know what to think. Fast-forward about 35 years. I was the first woman appointed to the National Plumbing Board. I had been on the Texas board for about a year and they shoved me to national. In 125 years they had not had a female on the board. I was sort of a shock to them. There were 38 board members from all over the country but I discovered I knew a lot more than a lot of them did because I grew up in the business. Eventually they got to where they trusted my judgment. I served four years there and had to wear a tie to every meeting. That was the dress code.

“I decided to run for president. You had to go to all the states and do some politicking, just like you were running for a federal office. I didn’t think I had a chance because there were two males running.”

Jo was vice president of the National Plumbing Board in 2007, then president-elect in 2008. She became president in 2009. She changed the dress code.

“I told the board I was going to make the tie optional but they had to wear panty hose. After wearing a tie for four years I told the 37 guys that if they didn’t wear pantyhose to meetings they had to donate $100 to the board’s foundation. When I set the dress code the head of the foundation also was on our board. He was elated because the foundation got thirty seven hundred dollars from each of my first two meetings because they were not about to put on pantyhose.”

Jo Rae and her husband had CTO, a plumbing and contracting company that built hospitals and high rises from the Rio Grand Valley to San Antonio and Austin. Jo’s maiden name was Colletti.

“I’m full blooded Sicilian, both father, mother and grandparents. In fact my grandparents were the first generation that came here from Sicily. My mother had a restaurant and I said I would never be in that business because you don’t have a life.”

Guess what business she’s in now. She owns a restaurant in Harlingen named Colletti’s. It’s in the Reese Building, an ancient hotel that she has restored and turned into an office complex. In addition to the restaurant it has an insurance office, a dentist and a law firm that has more than 100 attorneys who deal with child immigration issues. They occupy five floors of the 6-story building. When Jo opened her restaurant she assembled her employees and set some ground rules.

“They are nice guys but I told them I had been in a male industry my entire life so if it takes you more than 10 words to say something I’ve already tuned you out.”