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Laura Warren Ogletree has always reached for the stars while remaining grounded in the community around her. She was born Laura Nassri in Ciudad Juarez — the daughter of a Lebanese father and a Mexican mother. As a little girl she would gaze at the stars under the crystal-clear night skies of the Chihuahuan Desert and her imagination would soar.
“I had this fantasy of seeing things from up above, of being closer to God, and closer to my grandparents,” Ogletree recalled. “I also imagined myself in one of those spaceships I would see in the science fiction movies, but I didn’t want to just travel in the starships, I wanted to design them.”
That was the genesis of Ogletree’s fascination with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). In her early school years, Ogletree was already showing signs that she had the potential to excel in whatever STEM field she wanted to pursue.
“I began studying drafting in junior high and high school,” Ogletree noted. “When my vocational aptitude tests came back, they showed I had aptitude in physics and architecture. My architecture scores were actually fairly high.”
Still looking skyward, Ogletree’s attention turned from the stars to skyscrapers, especially those under construction. She was awestricken by their complexity, but she noticed there were no women at any of the job sites.
Ogletree told her father she wanted to be an architect, but she lamented that it was a profession mostly reserved for men (only 8% of architects in Mexico are female). His response, which she recalls verbatim, would shape her worldview on how to achieve success:
“My father said, ‘Mija, maybe you can study interior decoration, and you can decorate your home.’ I thought he was serious! But he was actually supportive, because he ended up telling me, ‘give yourself 15 minutes of self-pity, and then go do something about it.’”
That’s when Ogletree decided she would not let society box her in, and she would box herself in by adopting an attitude of victimhood. So, at age 16, she knocked on the door of one of Ciudad Juarez’s premier engineers, Eduardo Samaniego, and asked him for a job as a draftsman.
Samaniego thought she was being “cute and funny” at first, but ultimately he offered her a job as an assistant to his wife who was his business administrator. It wasn’t the position Ogletree wanted, but she took the job as a way to get her foot in the door, and it paid off.
“Eventually one Monday morning, one of the draftsmen didn’t show up for work,” Ogletree said. “I told Mr. Samaniego, ‘Look, I can do this. Just show me what you need to get done and I’ll do it.’ Well, I did the job, and I became his new apprentice draftsman, but his wife lost her assistant.”
That was 38 years ago, and Ogletree says she hasn’t stopped working since that day. After earning her Bachelor of Architecture degree at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, she’s been winning contracts, winning awards, and running up the score on her male doubters.
Ogletree’s buildings have left her footprints in Mexico City, Sao Paolo, London, and Birmingham, Alabama, the city that she first immigrated to in 1992. Ogletree moved to the Valley in 1995 with her second husband, Dan, a noted local builder who she met on a mutual job site.
Her projects here include the 2008 McAllen Airport expansion, the Art Village on Main, and the Medical Office Building at DHR. A month ago, the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers and the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Texas Society of Civil Engineers jointly named Ogletree Architect of the Year for her design of the Pharr Natatorium, which the organization designated as Building of the Year.
“I love doing what I do, because I love being part of people’s lives,” Ogletree said of her passion for architecture. “People are born in my buildings. They work and play in them. They get married in them, and become part of their life’s memories. I know it sounds romantic, but I think that’s magical.”
What community leaders find magical about Ogletree is her tireless commitment to service. She has served or is serving on numerous boards, from the Texas Finance Commission, to the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. Her philanthropy includes support of Easterseals RGV, McAllen South Rotary, Boys and Girl Scouts, and other grassroots organizations.
“To me it’s just second nature,” Ogletree said. “My father taught me that if we’re given opportunities, God expects us to do something with them. My aunt was stricken with polio when I was seven, but she continued to raise us. These things inspired me to be of service to others no matter what.”
Luz Maria “Luli” Gonzalez, Ogletree’s aunt, took care of her and her siblings whenever their mother traveled with her father, she said.
Ogletree recognizes that architecture is still a male-dominated field, but is grateful to the men who have mentored her through the years. She appreciates being seen as an inspiration, but wants young girls to simply assert their own talents regardless of whatever it is they decide to pursue.
In a way, Ogletree is still that little girl sitting in the desert, and dreaming of flying to the stars. Now that she has done projects for SpaceX Boca Chica, she’s anxious for civilian space flight to become a reality.
“Man, I’ll be the first one in line,” Ogletree mused. “Just take me to space, and I’ll be a happy Mexican!”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the chapters who named Ogletree as Architect of the Year and clarification on Ogletree’s family history.