Life Lessons & Learning: A celebration of women in the Kansas City District, Part 2

A woman stands in a parking lot in a hardhat and safety vest, and smiles for the camera while holding three hardhats in her left hand.

Rhonda Wilkinson, Fort Riley resident office, resident engineer, is out in the field.


The path to present day looks drastically different for all five of these women. Although each of their paths took them in different directions, all were fortunate enough to have had mentors that guided them along the way. Mentorship, coupled with lifetimes of experiences, has helped propel these women to success.

Rhonda Wilkinson, resident engineer

By the time Rhonda Wilkinson joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District in 2010, she was already at the top of her field. Having worked for private industry and as an associate professor at Kansas State University, Wilkinson had many years of experience under her belt. Even though she enjoyed her time as an associate professor, Wilkinson missed the hands-on experience of being in the field. So, she accepted a position with the Department of Public Works at Fort Riley, Kansas, where she worked with USACE on their new military hospital.

“I kind of missed being out in the field and doing design work,” said Wilkinson. “I was their mechanical systems expert on that project, so I watched the systems go in and did quality assurance for [USACE] … and then when that project was done, I stayed with [USACE.]”

After joining USACE, Wilkinson decided to participate in the Kansas City District’s Leadership Development Program, or LDP, where she was paired up with her mentor, Jill Fraley, Kansas City District environmental programs branch chief. Wilkinson's experience in LDP, combined with her upbringing and past professional experiences, has helped her excel at her job. 

“I kind of go back to the way my parents raised me, you know, [to] have integrity and do what you say you’re going to do,” said Wilkinson. “You learn every day … you never quit learning.”

Mary Smith, contract specialist

Even though Mary Smith hasn’t been at the Kansas City District for as long as the others, she knew it was the place for her when she was going through the interview process. Smith was confident she wanted to work in contracting; after interviewing with her current supervisor, Lacy Kay, Kansas City District military contracting branch chief, Smith knew she wanted to work for the district. 

“Honestly, I was looking for jobs … and I applied all over the place,” said Smith. “I was in the process of negotiating with a couple of different positions [one was the Kansas City District] and there was something about the way Lacy, my current supervisor, was communicating with me.”

Smith accepted the job in March 2022, and she’s enjoyed her time here at the Kansas City District ever since. She has met many people during her time, and for that Smith is thankful. Although she came to the district with a wealth of experience, she credits her love of the job to her co-workers and the diverse backgrounds of those that work at the district.

“When I talk about who I work with … if I could just pick their brains for an hour, I know I would know more than like ten other contract specialists in the field. It’s just been a great experience," said Smith. 

Heather Howse, program analyst

As a former military spouse, Heather House is used to constant change. The transient life of the military is not for everyone, but for those, like Howse, who are resilient enough to welcome the unpredictability, it can be a great experience. Howse credits her upbringing for her ability to adapt to new situations. 

“Throughout my life, my parents taught me through their words and their actions to stay humble and work hard,” said Howse. “[My father] told me as long as I enjoy what I’m doing, it’ll never seem like work … I’ve always tried to keep that as my hype phrase when I start new positions; just enjoy it.”

Howse has been with the Kansas City District since 2018. During her time at the district, she has been fortunate to have many co-workers she looks up to at the office. Howse has reflected on how these women have contributed to her career development.

“Stephanie Hall, … Stacy Roettger, … Annette Dixon and Becky Hunter, … Jennifer Kolarik, … Emily Rose … and Grace Jones, … if I could just get a little piece of what all of these women have, I will be alright,” said Howse. “Everyone that I have come across, no matter what section or branch they are in, they have all had a great impact on me in my career development at [USACE].”

Angelia Lentz, Tuttle Creek Lake natural resource specialist

For Angelia Lentz, working in natural resources has always been the destination, but the path to the Kansas City District wasn’t always straight. After many years working with other federal and state agencies, Lentz decided to fulfill her dream of working for USACE full-time and accepted a position at Tuttle Creek Lake in 2017.

“I knew eventually I did want to circle back and work for [USACE] sometime in my career,” said Lentz. “I just got sidetracked a little bit.”

What Lentz might call getting sidetracked, others might call gaining years of knowledge and experience. Her many years in natural resources has helped Lentz to understand both her strengths and her weaknesses. With the benefit of years of experience on her side, Lentz has learned that knowledge is power.

“It’s always important to keep building your knowledge base every year, learn something new,” said Lentz.

One way she continues to expand her knowledge is by learning from those she works with. Lentz credits some of the female leaders at the Kansas City District with helping her grow and continue to expand her knowledge base, emphasizing their willingness to help when asked.

“Melissa Bean … Julie Radcliffe … the Kansas City District is full of fantastic female leaders that are always willing to assist or share their knowledge or expertise,” said Lentz. “Never think twice about asking a question. You’re always going to be better off if you asked.”

Diana McCoy, public affairs chief

Sometimes, the path to success isn’t always easy and can contain roadblocks. For Diana McCoy, working for the Kansas City District was never a question, but after about 10 years with the district, she needed a change of scenery. Thankfully, she stayed and accepted a new position with the district’s emergency management branch.

“I would say the first 10 years of my career, it was more about me growing and learning,” said McCoy. “And then when I was kind of experiencing burnout, what really made me stay was that there was a lot of flexibility in working here.”

After a successful eight years with the emergency management branch, McCoy became the district’s public affairs chief. She credits not only the mentorship, but also the friendship, of her co-workers with helping her succeed, no matter what role she’s in.

“Janet Jones was one of my best friends here in the district … listening to her made me realize I had value in this organization,” said McCoy.

She also credits her former supervisor, Jud Kneuvean, the district’s readiness and contingency operations office chief, with changing her approach at work. Kneuvean’s kindness is something that McCoy appreciates, and she feels fortunate to still have Jones and Kneuvean as mentors and friends. Even though she is now in a leadership role, McCoy often asks herself what Jones or Kneuvean would do when facing a challenge or a difficult situation.

“I pay attention to people that I respect, and I try to emulate what would they do. I am always thinking ‘what would this person do in this situation’,” said McCoy. 

Each woman is thankful for the mentorship they’ve received at the Kansas City District and throughout their lives. Next week will focus on the lessons these women have learned throughout their careers and how it has helped them to achieve success.