Working with U.S. Military, Traveling Overseas, Leave Lasting Impressions on McCray
By Mike Price
McCray was determined not to let anything stand in the way of a water well briefing he was to give to the Euro NATO Training Engineer Center (ENTEC) in Munich, Germany. That included emergency gallbladder surgery taking place days before he was to leave.
Translated by 14 simultaneous interpreters, McCray gave a briefing on water well construction to military engineers at the Company Commander’s Course, November 18-23, 2001. As military engineers, they were beginning to become more involved in water well drilling, particularly when deployed to Africa.
The briefing received positive feedback and led to NGWA working with the U.S. Army’s 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) in Iraq.
McCray provided information via email to the battalion on decontaminating water wells in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. And in 2004, two soldiers from the battalion were recognized by McCray at the Groundwater Expo and Annual Meeting in Las Vegas. McCray introduced the soldiers, where they received a long-standing ovation.
“It was moving. I still tear up about it,” says McCray. “These guys are in combat in a horrible situation, but they were very appreciative of what we could do.”
In addition to working with the U.S. military, McCray has traveled to 17 nations, nearly all of them as the Association’s CEO. Fifteen of those nations were part of NGWA mission trips.
Some of the highlights include:
- McCray, newly appointed as CEO, was invited to join NGWA Past President Dick Henkel to Costa Rica in 1997. Henkel wanted McCray to meet government leaders in the country who were trying to learn more about water resources. McCray met the president of Costa Rica, Rafael Angel Calderon Fourner, and 1987 Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias Sánchez, who was also a former Costa Rican president.
- Traveled to Nicaragua in 2005 to participate in a program for graduating Masters students from a cooperative hydrogeology program between Canadian and Central American universities. Ralph Cadwallader accompanied McCray on the trip to present a seminar in Spanish on the fundamentals of water well construction.
- Traveled to China twice (1998, 2008) on People to People Ambassador visits, a combination of business and tourism. McCray and NGWA delegates met with their Chinese counterparts from several sectors. Current NGWA President Todd Hunter, CWD/PI, says the 2008 trip sparked his interest in wanting to serve on the Board of Directors.
The most memorable trip for McCray came prior to him becoming CEO of NGWA. In fall 1985, McCray was in Berlin to learn more about Wasser Berlin International, a bi-annual international trade fair and congress for water and wastewater.
During non-work time, McCray and representatives from other associations passed from West Berlin to East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East and West Berlin and the epicenter of the Cold War. At the time, Berlin was still a partitioned city.
McCray remembers seeing white crosses with dates on them on the wall outside of the Reichstag, a building physically within West Berlin but only a few feet from the border of East Berlin. The interpreter explained the dates represented when someone trying to escape was killed by East German checkpoint watchtower guards.
“You realize wherever you went you were being looked at by guys in guard towers with machine guns,” McCray recalls. “To me, it’s how I learned what freedom and liberty are all about. It was one of the most important things that ever happened to me in my life.”
Wasser Berlin International wasn’t the right fit for NGWA as it was a show mainly focusing on public water utilities. Nevertheless, McCray was a changed man after what he had witnessed.
McCray Still Remembers Extra Effort Made by Staff
The family of the deceased contractor knew how much it meant to him to be a Certified Well Driller (CWD), so they asked if NGWA could provide a certification patch for the casket during the funeral service. The funeral service was being held 80 miles from NGWA headquarters. In the middle of a snowstorm the night of the funeral, the staff member drove to hand deliver the patch.
“That kind of effort just blows me away,” says McCray. “Our staff person was motivated to do something meaningful for someone else.”
NGWA Board President-Elect Shares Story of McCray Accepting CEO Position
John Schmitt, CWD/PI, owner of JP Schmitt & Co. in Manchester, Michigan, remembers when McCray accepted the position of NGWA CEO like it was yesterday.
Schmitt, president-elect of the NGWA Board of Directors in August 1995, was part of a six-person search committee which had CEO candidates give presentations in Columbus, Ohio, near NGWA headquarters.
“The range of presentations was large, but there was no question Kevin’s was the best,” recalls Schmitt. “We also liked that he had a history with the Association. Still, we didn’t want to make a decision right there. We wanted time to think it over, so he went back home. When we did the vote, it was unanimous to make him the offer.”
That’s when it became interesting.
Schmitt told the committee it would be best to make the offer in person. Since he was the closest to Columbus, he volunteered to meet McCray, but the committee didn’t want to ask Schmitt to drive back to Columbus.
“I called him and said we want to make you an offer, but that is all I want to say,” says Schmitt. “I want to do it in person. He suggested meeting in Findlay (Ohio), because that is a good half-way point so we met at a Frisch’s Big Boy Restaurant. We had lunch and then went to a gas station next door.
“Kevin got on a payphone and I got on Kevin’s cellphone in the car and we talked to the search committee. It was a good call and it really didn’t take that long at all. I’ve joked with him for years that he’s the only CEO to get a job offer leaning on a gas station wall.”
And just like that, on August 31, 1995, the 40-year-old McCray embarked on his 22-year run as CEO of NGWA.
“I told Kevin I’ll be your first president and I want you to always be straight with me,” Schmitt says. “Tell me the facts. He always did, and I think he always has. He is a good, hard-working Midwestern guy, which is what we needed at the time. We’ve been fortunate to have him.”
Schmitt will be at the 2017 Groundwater Week, December 5-7 in Nashville to see McCray at his last industry event as CEO. It will be McCray’s 37th Groundwater Week annual meeting and trade exposition.
“I want to be there at the end since I was there at the beginning,” says Schmitt.
Colleagues Share Memories Working with McCray
One thing I learned from him that I use to this day is asking: Is it relevant? I use that in my business and civic causes as well. Is it relevant? Does it mean something? Obviously, you have to make a profit, but is what you’re considering relevant to you, to your business. That really struck me because I used to be a belonger, and if you do that too much it can take away from your job and your family. —Tom Downey, CWD/PI, president and CEO of Downey Drilling Inc. in Lexington, Nebraska. Downey was NGWA president in 2006 and the 2012 Ross L. Oliver Award recipient.
No matter the situation, no matter the level of disagreement on certain topics, no matter the variance of opinion, I could always count on Kevin operating and acting with the utmost in integrity. Kevin leads with integrity and follows up with hard work. He continually strives to be the best he can be and challenges those around him to do the same. —Paul Humes, CPA, chief financial officer/vice president of operations of NGWA.
No one could be more deserving of retirement. Kevin worked tirelessly to promote groundwater and grow an organization that is both a professional society and a trade organization comprised of four often fractious divisions. Kevin and I did not always agree, but I never doubted his devotion to groundwater and NGWA. I suspect that in a few years many of us will be asking, “What would Kevin have done?” —Michael E. Campana, Ph.D., professor of hydrogeology and water resources management at Oregon State University. Campana serves on the NGWA Foundation Board of Directors.
Kevin is the force of NGWA and the success of NGWA is the result of the excellent staff. The performance of the staff reflects Kevin’s leadership. Kevin encourages, supports, and holds his staff accountable. The staff’s performance allows Kevin to expand his role of CEO in the representation of NGWA. —John Pitz, CPI, NGWAF, president of N L Pitz Inc. in Batavia, Illinois. Pitz was NGWA president in 2012 and among the first five to receive NGWA’s Fellow designation in 2016.
I have known and worked with Kevin since the mid-1990s, first on industry statutory and regulatory issues and later on issues specific to the groundwater association and its membership. Kevin has always been a consummate professional and a passionate advocate for groundwater and the professionals who serve the groundwater industry. —DeLancey W. Davis, president of Headwater Companies LLC. Davis is a 25-year industry veteran, including the last 11 as an executive officer of Franklin Electric.
Kevin’s leadership is marked by integrity and a sense of purpose—protecting our valuable groundwater resource while concurrently advancing the interest of the greater groundwater community. It was my pleasure to work with him over the years. —Christine Reimer, NGWA’s first government affairs director from 1993-2014.
Kevin was an excellent employee. He did great work and never missed a deadline, and he was also an excellent boss. He always listened carefully to your ideas and considered all of the points you’d made before working together to decide if you should move forward with a new project or change to an existing one. His loyalty and dedication to NGWA were clear from the beginning of his tenure. —Anita B. Stanley, a 30-plus-year employee of NGWA who served as editor of Water Well Journal. McCray reported to Stanley as assistant editor of WWJ.
A person may be in “control” because he has been hired or appointed to a position. He may have authority, but leadership is more than having authority, or the training he needs to do the job. Real leadership is the ability for a person to have others follow him gladly.
It was a pleasure to follow Kevin, and I was glad to have him on this journey with me. What inspiration he passed on to me will stay with me and I will be enriched by it. —Loyd Watson, MGWC, CVCLD, president of Watson Co. Inc. in Lascassas, Tennessee. Watson was NGWA president in 2007 and the 2011 Ross L. Oliver Award recipient.