photo of Maria Lehman at Accelerating Infrastructure Summit
Maria Lehman participcated in the Accelerating Infrastructure Summit last week.

It’s an interesting time for Maria Lehman to take stock of things; to look around and consider where she is in life and how far she’s come.

Consider that a week ago, Lehman represented ASCE onstage at the White House with President Biden’s Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, among other leaders, for the Accelerate Infrastructure Summit, a virtual event to discuss the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Consider also that a week from now, Lehman will be installed as the ASCE 2023 president, ready to lead the organization into an exciting future.

She’s serving as the vice-chair of President Biden’s Infrastructure Advisory Council. She works as the U.S. Infrastructure Market Leader at GHD.

It’s all probably more than she could have imagined as a kid. Or is it?

In her own words, on the brink of the ASCE presidency, Lehman thinks back to her childhood, her family, and her civil engineering journey:

A small village in Poland

This is a long story.

I am a first-generation American. My parents were both born in current-day Poland. To understand how I came to be where I am, you need some contextual history.

My dad was born in rural Poland in a small village in 1904 to a poor farming family.  However, my grandmother Rozalia taught my dad to read before he started school.  Pretty amazing for a rural woman in 1910 or so! She was also a gun runner for the resistance in both world wars.

My grandmother made my dad go to seminary so he could get a higher education. After finishing what we consider high school, he went on to get a law degree at the University of Poznan. He became a prosecutor, corporate attorney, and judge in Katowice in the Silesia region of Poland. He also was a Polish Nationalist and was there at the rebirth of his native country after World War I.

He prosecuted many Nazi operatives in the 1930s, as Silesia was and still is the industrial and mining hub of Poland, with great wealth. He had one brother who died in World War II, because the Nazi occupiers didn’t think taking a Pole having a heart attack to the hospital was a priority.

So my dad became the corporate attorney for Baron Alexander von Hochberg, whose father was the Prince of Pless (or Pszczyna in Polish). Baron von Hochberg, also known as Aleksander Pszczyński, owned more than 40,ooo hectares of land, six coal mines, and a brewery that still exists today, Tyskie Brewery. The baron was my brother’s godfather. The work my dad did for the baron made my dad a rich man, who himself had invested in many properties in Silesia.

My mother, Hilda Priebe, was born in Katowice to a wealthy family. A self-made man, my grandfather owned department stores, lumber forests, distilleries, and other businesses. My grandmother died very young, and my mom had a brother who represented Poland in the backstroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was murdered during World War II. She also had a severely handicapped sister who never walked.

My mom attended finishing school in Neuchatel, Switzerland, and then was a buyer for my grandfather’s stores, which meant trips to London, Paris, and Milan. My mom was also an avid skier.

photo of Maria Lehman early in her career Maria Lehman
Maria Lehman early in her career.

Escaping war

My parents met at a party in Katowice and were married on Dec. 26, 1938. They lived in an apartment while they restored a house that occupied a full city block in Katowice.  They would never live in their house, however, as World War II started just nine months later.

Due to my dad’s prosecution of spies and operatives, he knew things were going to deteriorate, so he walked out of Poland in August [1939]. My grandfather was able to convince the Germans to allow my mother to book passage to Malta, as she was so distraught with the war and the disappearance of my father. Their plan was to meet in Malta.

My dad joined the Polish wing of the British Army as an intelligence officer. They traveled throughout the Middle Eastern Theater during the war, and my sister, Anne Szczesny, and brother, George Strzelczyk, were born in what was then Palestine. Both were baptized at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

After the war, they were transported to refugee camps in England and eventually were sponsored as refugee immigrants to the United States in 1951 by my dad’s cousin Leon Nowakowski to Buffalo, New York.

Immigrant life

Both my parents once knew great wealth but had become destitute overnight.

They were able to rebuild their lives, because both had great educations and became very resilient due to life’s circumstances. They also knew the great loss of close family members. We were always taught that education was the most important thing because you can always lose everything you have, but you get to keep what’s in your mind. Neither of my parents would see their parents again after leaving Poland in 1939.

The ordeal eventually took its toll on my mother, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the late 1950s. After undergoing surgery, the benign tumor was removed, but she was left with other issues due to the surgery.  A couple years later, she was having new health issues, which tuned out to be a pregnancy – me!

Because my dad’s degree was in English law and the United States at that time didn’t accept his credentials, he started working at the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory as a skilled laborer. His legal degree required him to know both Greek and Latin, and that helped him land a job working for a Bible printer. He learned how to set type and retired as a linotype operator at the Tonawanda News.

My parents started a Polish relief and travel agency called Pomoc (“help” in Polish) and sent money, medicine, and dry goods to Poland from the large Polish American community in Western New York. In the late 1960s, they started charter trips to Poland. All the while, my dad continued as a member of the Polish government in exile in London.

photo of Maria Lehman as a baby Maria Lehman
Maria Lehman VERY early in her career.

Buffalo born and raised

I was born in Buffalo and spent my childhood in a constant state of worry about my mom’s health, which was never good. I also grew up speaking Polish and did not learn English until I started kindergarten.

I was always a challenge, as I was a great student who, growing up in the 1960s, challenged the establishment. For example, I staged a sit-in with my girlfriends in third grade to get permission to wear pants to school. I know that my mom suffered through my challenges, while my dad put on a face but was always impressed by my leadership skills even as a third grader. He used to tell me that some people are built for the fight, and they must carry the weight for those who are not or cannot stand up for themselves.

Finding engineering

In middle school, I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps into law school. After scoring off the charts in math and science, I was called into the guidance counselor’s office to discuss what my thoughts were for college. I said law school at Columbia. He told me that I am a girl from Cheektowaga, I should set my sights on something realistic. But I am that person who if you tell me I can’t, I only get more energized and will get it done.

I was a National Merit Semifinalist, and when it came time to apply to colleges, I had already decided on engineering. So I applied to Columbia and was one of only 10% to be directly admitted to the engineering school. When I received my letter, I took it to the guidance counselor and showed it to him. He said he was proud of me but didn’t remember what he had said to me four years earlier. So I reminded him, adding, “Don’t you dare ever discourage another woman from pursuing her dreams! Your future is limited only by what your aspirations are. You need to set lofty goals.”

It so happens that my sister, who was a teacher, knew that guidance counselor’s boss well, and relayed the story. He heard from his boss as well!

When I was in high school there were no AP classes, but I took all the advanced math and science classes I could take. I also did an early admissions program through Buffalo State College over the summer to get more college credits. Because I was a late-in-life baby, I was in a hurry to get on with things so my parents would have some time together without a challenging rug rat under their feet.

I started working part-time at 16, received full scholarships for college, and graduated with my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, magna cum laude in just over three years at 20 years old.

I was fortunate enough to have early professional mentors who got me involved in ASCE and challenged me at work to never get too comfortable in my profession. Take calculated risks, they said, and follow the money!

All these life lessons taught me to be a professional cliff diver. Try something new and see how it goes. You can always pivot again. That has also made be very restless in my profession.

Family full circle

My husband, Carl, and I started a family young and have three sons – Jason, who is a computer engineer, Geoffrey, who is a civil engineer, and Rian, who is a professional magician and videographer. They grew up at ASCE events like board meetings and steel bridge competitions and are renaissance men who cook, bake, clean, sew as well as repair things, are great carpenters, and have good heads for business. We have two granddaughters Cecileia, 7, and Lilith, 4, and one grandson, Isaac, who is 2.

I have tons of family both in Europe and in the United States, as well as cousins in Poland. While my dad was alive, he started the process to repatriate his Polish properties after communism fell in 1990. My cousins in Poland were licensed professionals (doctors, engineers, and lawyers) who, during communism, didn’t have enough money to buy their own apartments, so my dad (and later the three of us kids) would send them money. We all decided to work hard to secure the futures of their children.

I am proud to say that seven years ago I stood in front of a magistrate in Krakow to plead our case, and we were successful in getting numerous family properties back in Chorzów and Bytom. Many were sold for back taxes (really!) and to pay for legal fees, but a few remain with our cousins. All these years later, we are continuing to work on repatriation of my parents’ and grandparents’ home in Katowice. Where it all began.

ASCE will induct Maria Lehman as its 2023 president during the annual business meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the ASCE 2022 Convention in Anaheim, California.