ASCE members voted Maria C. Lehman, P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE, into the position of 2022 president-elect during the Society’s election in May.

So, clearly, they knew something of her character and vision for the organization.

But did they know about her favorite song? Or her favorite pizza topping? Or how Antarctica fits into her plans?

Lehman recently answered these pressing questions and more in Civil Engineering Source’s annual “get to know your new president-elect” interview.

headshot of Lehman

Civil Engineering Source: Of what are you most proud in your career? 

Maria Lehman: Being able to deliver complex mega-projects on tight schedules that really impact a region. The keys to success on these projects have to do with very careful early project planning, extensive project stakeholder engagement, and environmental risk management. In the past, clients have not seen the benefit of this type of early investment and risk management, but I have been on several projects where this has been the master key to success.

The other area that I am really proud of is my work in disaster preparedness and incident response. I trained in incident command structure by FEMA during my public sector days. When you are facing natural or manmade disasters, there are many issues that come up that were not pre-planned or anticipated, and people’s lives depend on your ability to solve the issue at hand. It is an area where you directly see the civil engineer’s role in delivering public health and safety.

Source: What sparked your interest in civil engineering?

Lehman: I went to a very blue-collar high school in Cheektowaga, New York, where only approximately 10% of the graduates went on to college. Most of us ended up in STEM fields, as the head of the math department, Mr. Thomas LaPena, was an incredible teacher and mentor.

In our pre-AP calculus class, there was a real focus on engineering, but I remember Mr. LaPena telling us that while he wanted us to love calculus like he did (he read calculus books for leisure), he would be happy if we lived the class motto that was ‘cogitation and tenacity.’ I have thought about that motto every day of my professional career.

Specific to civil engineering, I started dating Carl as a freshman in high school, and he was a freshman at UB [University at Buffalo] in civil engineering. The rest is history – we have been married for 41 years, and I ended up a civil engineer.

Funny follow up story: in 1990-91, I was the president of the Buffalo Section and Carl was the president-elect; then in 2002-2003, I was Zone 1 vice president, and Carl was District 1 director. First time a husband and wife served on the ASCE board together.

Source: Favorite book?

Lehman: All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum and Managing Giga Projects: Advice from Those Who’ve Been There, Done That edited by Patricia Galloway, Kris Nielsen, and Jack Dignum.

Source: Are you a cat person or a dog person?

Lehman: Dog – I had two different collies growing up and three golden retrievers since starting a family. Sadly, we lost Hercules in April of this year to insulinoma, a rare pancreatic cancer. We gave him a good quality of life for three years. His original prognosis was to live for two months to two years, so both our vet and the Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine were amazed.

Source: Favorite food?

Lehman: Carl and I are both foodies. We love all type of food with few exceptions. And we have both attended classes at the Culinary Institute of America, as well as other culinary schools, so we make it as well as going out to enjoy new and exciting restaurants.

In fact, I am a member of #ASCEEATS along with Marsha Anderson Bomar, Tony Lau, Marsia Geldert-Murphey, Therese Kline, Carol Haddock, Roger Millar, Nancy Straub Cline, Robin Kemper, Jennifer Epp, and many others. We have enjoyed a food tour in Denver, several foodie dinners in Reston, Detroit, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, along with a virtual wine tasting with Cinagro Wine Experience. It’s about great food and great friends!

Source: Favorite sports team?

Lehman: Buffalo Bills. Professional sports are really a religion in Western New York.

Source: At the end of a long workday, how do you relax?

Lehman: Hot tub, great classic rock, and a glass of wine or margarita

Source: What is your favorite civil engineering landmark?

Lehman: Machu Picchu is an amazing landmark. The ASCE international landmark plaque is in an area near the entrance that is fairly touristy. As soon as you pass the plaque, you turn a corner on a narrow path and the entire site opens up in front of you.  It is a sacred place. Turning the corner makes you speak in whispers.

The engineering that was done on top of a mountain hundreds of years ago is phenomenal. We took Steven Wright’s book with us and looked at all the engineering elements, not just the items reviewed in the guided tour.

Since Carl climbs bridges for a living, he wanted to play “billy-goat.” I stayed behind in a quiet spot and was looking at the book to find some of the off-the-beaten path items, when I felt something on my left shoulder. I thought it was Carl, but it turned out to be a wild llama checking me and my book out. It was a very surreal experience.

Source: In what way has COVID changed your life the most?

Lehman: I am a wanderer by nature and love to travel to see new things and connect with people. It energizes me. This “Groundhog Day” experience has really hit me hard.  Interactions, professional relationships, and friendships are very different in a Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares format of Zoom, as opposed to in person. So I am eager to get back to traveling.

Source: Go-to pizza topping? 

Lehman: Favorite at home: stuffed hot pepper pizza – hot pepper rings, hot Italian sausage, romano and mozzarella on red sauce. When traveling: cheese and mushroom.

Source: Favorite Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor?

Lehman: Cherry Garcia; Coffee, Coffee, BuzzBuzzBuzz!

Source: Ideal vacation spot?

Lehman: We love all types of travel. There was a time where I could not sit in one place and just relax on a vacation as there were so many places to see and so many people to meet. Now I can build in a few down days to relax, visit a spa, read a book, and swim!

Source: Favorite television show?

Lehman: Not a big TV watcher. We do like HGTV and Food Network with a little “Big Bang Theory” thrown in.

Source: One thing ASCE members would be surprised to learn about you?

Lehman: That I have a minor in art and love to paint in acrylics. That I am an avid photographer, and love to do many different media things like silk painting, stained glass, ceramics, jewelry, woodcraft. I just don’t have enough hours in a day to do many of those things currently, but I am looking forward to getting back to them. I do lots of crafts with my granddaughters. In essence, I am a left-right brain argument!

Source: What was your first car?

Lehman: Chevy Chevette

Source: What is one thing on your bucket list?

Lehman: Visiting Antarctica.

Source: Favorite song?

Lehman: Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”

Source: When you spend time with family, what do you all like doing? 

Lehman: We love to travel, swim, go to plays, movies and sports events, play board games and EAT!

Source: What is the quality you admire most in someone?

Lehman: Resilience and tenacity. The ability to get right back up when you are pushed down. My mantra to my granddaughters is “I am beautiful, I am kind, I am strong, and I am smart!”