We had been trying to schedule an interview with Dr. Diana Natalicio since the end of August following her Texas Lyceum honor of “Stewardship of Texas Values Award” over the summer.

Lyceum member and longtime Natalicio staffer Estrella Escobar told us Natalicio won the award in 2020, but the presentation was pushed to this year because of the pandemic.

Natalicio is the first El Pasoan to receive the prestigious award, which counts the likes of Ross Perot, Lady Bird Johnson, President George H.W. Bush and Nolan Ryan among its past recipients.

The Texas Lyceum is a leadership organization that brings together the next generation of state leaders to respond to issues facing the state and nation. The Stewardship of Texas Values Award honors “distinguished Texans who best exemplify Texas values and the principles for which the State and the Texas Lyceum stand.”

Natalicio was unable to attend the awards event in person, so Escobar spoke at the ceremony and a delegation of El Paso Lyceum members joined her on stage to accept on Natalicio’s behalf.

We were really looking forward to catching up with Natalicio about it and how retirement was going. We hadn’t officially checked in since awarding her the Woman of Impact Lifetime Achievement award in 2019.

We’re deep in preparations for this year’s Woman of Impact project with the awards event weeks away, and I wondered about the impact Natalicio had on our honorees.

UTEP’s Dr. Azuri Gonzalez is among this year’s recipients and mentioned to me that Natalicio had recently congratulated her for it. Gonzalez said there are so many memories and direct and indirect lessons.

Natalicio, Gonzalez said, “once told me, already 30 years into her presidency, that she wasn’t sure she ever fully became ‘presidential’ the way others expected her to be. She was guided by a mission, a particular focus, and led with that in mind. Her allocation of resources was guided by the mission, not by the ‘look’ of what she sometimes felt was expected.”

Also among UTEP faculty and a 2020 Woman of Impact, Dr. Ann Gates said that Natalicio taught her “the importance of having the confidence and courage to be authentic and to stand up for one’s beliefs even when it means going against the norm – especially on issues regarding equity and inclusion.”

To round out the UTEP and doctorate trifecta, I also asked Dr. Ann Horak – a 2019 Woman of Impact – who said Natalicio “knew what it’s like to be underestimated. She was underestimated growing up and was never expected to go to college. She was underestimated when she arrived at UTEP as a spouse following her then husband. She was definitely underestimated when she became president!”

Horak mentioned Natalicio was even laughed at by the UT System Board of Regents over UTEP’s statistics and the mission of access and excellence. She asked Natalicio where she found the courage to face down that challenge. “I don’t know! I just had that vision; I could see that goal. And to me it was simply finding a pathway, whatever that was, to get to it. I knew that the goal was worth it,” Natalicio said.

To do that, I think most would agree with 2018 Woman of Impact Adair Margo who said Natalicio taught her to “forge your own way and not try to be part of an existing ‘inner circle.’ Do what you need to do, and a circle will form around you.”

GECU CEO and 2017 Woman of Impact Crystal Long mentioned Natalicio’s “handwritten notes of encouragement spoke volumes about the importance of building and maintaining relationships with others,” which reminded me of the note I received from Natalicio following that 2019 Woman of Impact breakfast:

“I was deeply honored to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and especially inspired and humbled to receive it in the company of the large number of highly accomplished women who filled the El Paso Country Club that morning – past, present and future Women of Impact award winners. Their talent, commitment, creativity and hard work has helped shape this region’s development and will surely continue to play a major role in our future prosperity and quality of life.

“Thanks again to you, El Paso Inc., and to Tom and Ellie, not only for this recognition and your patience with my request to defer it until now, but for leading this important initiative to recognize women of high achievement in the community.”

It was a wonderful day, and I’m more grateful than ever that it came together. What if we’d waited? My dad (the “Tom” mentioned above) keeps telling me life is short.

Many thanks to all who contributed to this column and my apologies to a few I couldn’t work in. I’ve greatly cut the very eloquent responses for print, but they are included here in the online version.

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