Cassi Salazar: A Profile in Canyon Leadership

 

Two years ago, Leakey, Texas resident Cassi Salazar took on two major challenges at once. First, she gave birth to her second child, a girl named Athena. Second, on her first day back at work following maternity leave, Cassi stepped into a new role as head of groundskeeping for the H. E. Butt Foundation.

Being in charge meant directing the work of other grounds crew members for the first time. It also meant working alongside that crew, even as she was nurturing her newborn. “I came back to chainsawing, spreading mulch,” says Cassi—a mom, a landscape pro, and a leader of one of the most vital aspects of the Foundation’s work: the care and presentation of the beloved Frio River Canyon.

Cassi—short for Cassiopeia—is one of three family members working in the Canyon—her father-in-law, Juan Ortiz, is a Heavy Equipment Operator alongside her husband, Noe. Juan has been with the Foundation since 1990, and Noe since 1995, when he worked the first of four consecutive summer jobs before joining the staff full-time in 1999.

In May 2006, Cassi was working as a housekeeper at another Hill Country camp when Noe asked her to consider taking a summer gig with the groundskeeping crew. She leapt at the chance to switch her mop for a weed eater: “I’m used to hard labor,” she says. “Housekeeping wasn’t cutting it for me.”

A Leakey resident for most of her life, Cassi had worked at a nearby exotic big game ranch in high school. “I was lifting bales of hay, fifty-pound sacks of seed, wrestling monkeys and ibex goats. I loved it.” (When asked, Wait, you were actually wrestling monkeys? Cassi just smiles and says, “Yeah.”) She says the invitation to get back to “doing heavy work” was right up her alley.

 

Noe worked alongside his wife on the grounds crew until two years ago, when he was promoted to a different crew. “I’m still mad about that, actually,” Cassi says, smiling. “We had a good time working together.” Cassi’s initial hire was far from a sure thing. “Mr. Butt had a rule against a husband and wife serving on the same team,” Cassi says. “But Mr. (Glenn) Echols convinced them there wasn’t going to be a divorce, that we could handle working together.”

Their working partnership—and their marriage—hasn’t missed a step. “Noe and Hugh and Juan all treat me just the same,” says Cassi. Cassi’s boss, Director of Maintenance Operations Hugh Schneemann, is enthusiastic in his praise of his colleague. The hard labor of working the land might sound like man’s work to some, he says, “but there’s no gender to this job. It’s all ability.”

“Whenever she first came here, she had probably used a weed eater before, but that was about it,” he says. “Now, she can break one down, look it over, repair it, put it back together, no problem.”

“She has an eagerness for knowledge. She’s interested in just about anything.” Hugh says that “it’s been beautiful” to watch Cassi grow into one of the Canyon’s most capable leaders. Asked what’s been most impressive about her growth, Hugh ponders, then answers:

“What’s the most beautiful part? It’s like planting an acorn and watching the tree blossom. It’s all beautiful.”

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