Executive assistant, Office of the Dean
When executive assistant Christi Neal isn’t behind the desk in the dean’s office, she’s wielding a gavel as mayor of Kemp, Texas, population 1,357.
Utilizing leadership and communication skills acquired through years in professional office settings, Neal is working to unite the citizens of Kemp and spark economic development in the small town southeast of Dallas.
“I’ve lived there 29 years in December, in the same house,” Neal said. “I always thought when my kids graduated and left, I’d move closer to Dallas, but the older I get, I think this is my hometown.”
She said being the mayor is simply a way to serve her community, and although she doesn’t give much thought to the significance of her title, Dean Lily T. García will often introduce her as “Mayor Neal,” in recognition of her accomplishment.
“I guess it’s a big deal, but I don’t see it that way,” she said. “I’m just a community member like anybody else.”
Neal first became interested in city government about 12 years ago, when the City of Kemp was without water for two weeks.
“I was going to the gym and getting dressed at the gym because I had no water,” she said.
When the council doubled everyone’s water bills to cover the repairs to the water system, Neal, along with other citizens, began attending council meetings to voice their opinions. She ended up running for city council in 2013 and served eight years before running for mayor in 2021.
“I was shocked I won,” she said of the mayor’s race. “I ran against two men who were highly educated. One of them was retired from the Department of Defense, and one was an engineer. But neither one of them had ever shown up to a council meeting or anything.”
Neal said her first two years as mayor have been a learning experience.
“I have a fantastic city administrator, and I do a lot of brainstorming with her,” she said. “She figures out the money piece of it, and then we figure out how to execute our plans. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Her most rewarding, but also the most challenging, project to date is the revitalization of downtown Kemp. New sidewalks and lights have been installed, and a crackdown on code enforcement has cleaned up the area. One of the buildings is now under new ownership and being remodeled to open as a pub.
“That was a big win for us because I kept saying that securing one new business would attract others, and it’s the first pillar to getting downtown revitalized,” she said. “And sure enough, another building recently came up for sale, and a couple is considering buying it and opening a deli and coffee shop, so it’s going to happen!”
Neal is also proud to say a new water plant will be complete in September of this year, a project that’s been in the works for several years and a resolution to the problem that first spurred her interest in city government.
In her role as mayor, Neal also serves on the Kemp Economic Development Board and the Kaufman County Leadership Council.
“I’ve just always had instilled in me that if you see a problem, find a way to solve it,” she said. “In my leadership roles, I listen to others and take everyone’s opinions into consideration.”
That mindset has carried her through her professional life, as well.
Climbing the career ladder
Before joining the dental school staff, Neal worked at UT Southwestern for nine years, starting as an admin in the surgery department. After working in surgery for two years, she sought out other opportunities at UT Southwestern and was named administrative coordinator to the chairman of the Department of Pediatrics. She later moved on to pediatric hematology and oncology – the most challenging, yet also her favorite position. Her final post at UT Southwestern was in strategy and business development before making the leap to Texas A&M School of Dentistry in September.
“It’s really been a good change,” she said. “Dr. García is just great. I’ve never worked with someone at her level who truly listens. Most of the time they listen only to appease, but that’s simply not the case here.
“In so many other roles, I was an executive assistant, and I was just an executive assistant. I didn’t deviate from my role. I didn’t give my opinion. But Dr. García will ask my opinion about situations or what I would do, and I’m empowering others to do the same.”
Neal said she’s in the process of meeting with the various office administrators across the campus to determine the needs and issues in different departments.
“I encourage them to speak up if something is going on that they disagree with,” she said. “I always tell them they need to voice their concerns because it might be something that no one else has thought about.
“There are some challenges and things that need to be fixed, but I love a good challenge in every aspect of my life.”
More about Neal in her own words:
Are there any similarities between your job at the dental school and your job as mayor?
The similarities between the two jobs are definitely networking and relationship building, especially as we try to strengthen on our relationship with College Station.
Where did your willingness to serve originate?
With my dad and my grandmother. My dad was real involved in unions and was the business manager for the electricians’ union here in Dallas. He was also involved in AFL-CIO and was in Washington, D.C., a lot. My grandmother was part of the beginning of the crime watch committee in Pleasant Grove here in Dallas. She was involved in that until the day she died. She would be really proud if she knew I was the mayor.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I spend lots of my free time with friends and family, especially my four grandbabies. I love working in my yard, and I truly enjoy serving my city in various ways. I’m also really active in my church.