Curtis Smalley, a Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) member since 1985 and immediate past president of the Water Environment Association of Texas (WEAT; Austin), died July 16 at the age of 56. Smalley served as program manager for the City of Waco, Texas, and, according to many who knew him, embodied the roles of wastewater operator and passionate water-sector leader.
“Curtis was considered by many people to be the best operator in the state of Texas,” said Rhonda Harris, past president of WEF. Smalley had a “calm and logical way of looking at any issue” and could envision solutions quickly, she added. He understood the big picture of the entire water cycle, saw water as the most important element on earth, and worked to protect it and advance the professionalism of water and wastewater operators, Harris said.
“There are a lot of words to describe the man Curtis was, but the one word that does it best is ‘passion,’” said his wife Marla Smalley. “He was passionate about water and the need to take care of it,” she said. He encouraged others to feed their passion and let it infect others, she added.
“This passion inspired numerous other water sector professionals to get active in WEAT and WEF,” Harris said. “He was a true water leader … I will miss him with all my heart and soul.”
Smalley seemed “larger than life” with a “booming voice, handlebar mustache,” and presence that demanded attention, said Julie Nahrgang, executive director of WEAT. “He was my friend, mentor, and confidant … My respect for his work ethic and commitment to clean water is immense, but my respect for his humanity is indescribable. He was simply great. We miss him dearly,” she said.
Smalley represented WEAT on WEF’s House of Delegates and was an active participant in WEF’s Water Matters! Fly-In. He served on WEF’s Plant Operations and Maintenance, Professional Development, and Program committees. And as WEAT leader, he helped begin and promote an annual environmental service event during the Texas section of the American Water Works Association/WEAT conference.
“Curtis will forever be honored for his passion and dedication to the industry, his strong moral compass, and his amazing example of leadership with an authentic integrity in which partnership is just easy and inevitable,” said Christianne Castleberry, immediate past-chair of Texas Section of AWWA.
“The water industry lost a great man and leader, but his great example will be everlasting,” Castleberry said. “I personally am a better person for having known Curtis Smalley,” she added.
In addition to working at the City of Waco, Smalley also worked managing water and wastewater systems for the Brazos River Authority and projects at Veolia Water North America (Chicago). He also co-founded the operations consulting company PRO-OPS Inc. (Dallas).
At the City of Waco, Smalley served as a supervisor and mentor for many including Daniel D. Ives, technical coordinator for the City of Waco Water Utilities. Smalley was “hands-down” a “leader in water,” Ives said. “There was nothing that he didn’t know, and if he didn’t, he researched it and came back with an answer,” he added.
“I wanted to work under a person that I could respect and learn from, and Curtis was that man. He was always willing to take the time to answer my questions,” said Chris Myers, plant mechanic for the City of Waco Water Utilities. “He always wanted me to do better … He went above and beyond to help me to advance myself in the water business,” Myers said.
Smalley also helped solidify WEAT’s Operations Challenge program. He competed in the first Operations Challenge event hosted by the member association in 1989 and went on to compete at the national competition. He also helped run the program through WEAT, Harris said.
“He was a motivator. He had a gentle and quiet way of involving others, motivating them, and doing everything possible to help them to succeed,” said John Bennett, WEAT president from 2012–2013.
Bennett met Smalley after competing in his first Operations Challenge event in 1994. Smalley took time to explain how the competition is a process that takes time to learn and to develop skills, Bennett said.
“He was extremely knowledgeable of our craft and loved to help his fellow operators expand their knowledge and understanding of our craft,” Bennett added.
“As a leader, he would not ask anyone to do anything that he was not willing to do,” said David Briggs, WEAT president from 2011–2012. “He had a knack for getting the best out of people that included peers, employees, friends, and family,” Briggs said.
“While he was an outstanding leader and operator in our industry, he also was a husband, a father, grandfather, and a friend,” Briggs added. “His involvement, support, and contribution will not be forgotten and he cannot be replaced,” he said.
— Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights