Dr. Christine Altendorf was inducted into the Sacramento District Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees on Oct. 11, 2019 at a dinner and awards ceremony celebrating the District’s 90th anniversary. The award honors former employees who have distinguished themselves for exceptional service rendered to the Sacramento District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Just 12 other employees have been selected for this honor since it was established.
From 2006 until 2009, Altendorf served as the Sacramento District Deputy District Engineer for Programs and Project Management, where she was instrumental in overseeing the early stages of work on several landmark projects in the region, including the Folsom Dam Auxiliary Spillway, and managed work on area levees and the Sacramento Weir.
After recently serving as the Director of Installation Management Command-Pacific, Altendorf is now preparing for a return to the Corps in November to serve as Chief of Engineering and Construction for Corps Headquarters.
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of USACE, recently described her as a “multi-functional leader with a unique and proven ability to convert vision to action.”
Paul Bruton of the Public Affairs Office had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Altendorf and ask several questions about her career, her legacy, and what it means to be inducted into the Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees.
Q: What led you to choose Bio-systems and Agricultural Engineering as a degree path?
A: I chose engineering because in high school I preferred math and science over the other subjects. My dad was an engineer (petroleum engineer) and I have five older brothers, one of which is an engineer. I went to OK (Oklahoma) State and the first two years of all engineering disciplines are the same – mathematics, chemistry, physics, engineering sciences, etc., and after my sophomore year, I chose biosystems and ag engineering because the classes were smaller and there was a big focus on water resource engineering. It prepped me well for my higher degrees and a P.E. in civil engineering.
Q: In your recent position as Director of Installation Management Command, you were responsible for an area that includes Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, Korea and even Kwajalein Atoll. It looks like you might have had to do a lot traveling. Other positions in your bio look like you’ve had to travel as well. Do you enjoy the travel and getting out to the various sites/projects?
A: I do! Well, I don’t necessarily like the airport and crowded airplane experiences, but that being said, I’ve always had wanderlust. There are so many fascinating things to see everywhere you go. Even when I was young I had wanderlust. I always want to know what is out there in the world. I’ve been able to not only travel, but to live in many different locations. It worked out really well for me because I was not married (I’ve only been married for three and a half years) so it was easy for me to move and have different positions throughout my government career. It’s been so exciting to see the world. I’ve gotten to see amazing cultures I would have never been able to experience. One thing that I always tell my folks, if they get Korea or Japan – don’t just think of this of an assignment that’s far away, but take advantage of the situation, go explore, go to Mt. Fuji, go see the cherry blossoms, explore Seoul. It’s actually a gift that’s given to you, to be able to explore different cultures. For me travel has been very rewarding.
Q: You have an amazing bio with a long list of accomplishments. What are a few of your most valued accomplishments – what achievements are you the most proud of?
A: I would say, for me, what ended up being the biggest accomplishments all started out with a bit of fear. The challenges were very clear and I knew what the end result needed to be, but I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. For instance when I got to Sacramento District, there had been a huge bid bust on the Folsom Dam project and there was much pressure from Congress and HQ on a new path forward. There was no time to start the planning process again, and I was literally thinking, ‘I don’t know how to do this, I’m in a new district, in a new part of the country and this is going to be an engineering, political and policy challenge that I’ve never experienced before.’ So there was fear in all of that. And then when we finally got the Folsom Joint Federal Project authorized, and now being able to come and see it and the fruition of that fear and the labors that were associated with that … that’s what I find really rewarding. Another one would be when I went to the SHARP program, the Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention Program – because it’s something that was so out of my realm. I was able to learn and grow in an area that I had not been engaged in before and it was very satisfying. Another accomplishment that I’m proud of would be – and this is with my current job – is Korea Transformation. It’s been going on for years, but in the last three years we’ve moved most everyone from the northern garrisons in Korea, into Camp Humphreys. So it went from a small Army Garrison that had 5,000 people, to now, a thriving 40,000 person garrison – it’s booming – it is the most modern garrison we have now in the Army, I had a large learning curve with IMCOM, (which correlated with a bit of fear), but with great folks to teach me, I’ve been able pull my past experiences together and the utilize them in new roles.
Q: People often mistake legacy to mean ‘what you want to achieve in the future.’ But our legacy is what remains right now. As you continue to work, what do you want your legacy to include?
A: A lot of times you think of legacy as associated with something specific that somebody did, and for me that’s not how I see it. I am a true believer of ‘people remember you not for what you did, but how you made them feel.’ Even last night when we were having a get together with some USACE people I haven’t seen in a long time, we did not discuss physical projects and accomplishments, but we discussed the journey of getting to those accomplishments – how we felt, the fun we had, the bullets we sweated……’ To me that’s the legacy … and it may not include people being able to list what I have done, but I hope it will be, ‘Wow, we felt really accomplished when she was here; she made me feel like I was really good at my job; she showed me that I was a valued employee.’
Q: If you could effect change in a couple specific, personally meaningful areas of work before the sun sets on your distinguished career, what would they be?
A: It just depends. You have these overarching areas like, me as a human being, or you can have career-focused areas. For instance, when I went to IMCOM (Installation and Management Command Directorate-Pacific) four-and-a-half years ago, I had to first learn the organization but then I also had to determine how to make that organization better. Would I be successful at project completion? Or employee development? Or developing a culture where people like to come to work every day? But a lot of what I’ve really, really focused on when I was in IMCOM-Pacific is team development, teamwork, responsiveness and job satisfaction. One of my ultimate goals is to make sure that I am dispensable, not because I’m a bad employee, but because I have selected the best staff and developed them professionally and personally, and they are ready to over my position.
Q: What drives you? What motivates you to continue to take on more responsibility?
A: What really drives me is people … Relationships; collaboration; getting through the challenges. Number one is people. I also get a great deal of satisfaction – and this goes back to being an applied engineer – of checking things off a list as completed. I like ‘done.’ This is done, this is done, this is accomplished. I love completion of things. As far as taking on more responsibility, I’m on my game a little more when I’m a little uncomfortable. I think I perform a little bit better. I’m a little more on edge. … I’m comfortable being uncomfortable – that’s probably a really good description. I’m not complacent and always looking to make things better, or make me better. I love to learn – I love that part of it – and I continue to learn every single day. So this question and the legacy question are really tied together for me, because my legacy is the impact of how I made people feel, and not necessarily of what I did.
Q: I’m sure you have received many awards throughout your productive career. But not all awards are created equal or have the same personal value and meaning. Which awards during your career have meant the most to you?
A: I don’t know. Because what’s really awarding to me, is one, self-satisfaction. And then the more individual declaration of success, such as having the boss that picks up the phone and says, ‘Wow, you’ve done a really good job on this.’ And tonight (the dinner and induction event) is going to be really fun, but the most fun about it, honestly, for me, is getting to see the people I was here with, getting to see the people that are here now, and going and seeing the (district’s completed projects) yesterday and listening to the up-and-coming program managers and project managers and thinking, ‘Wow, this district’s in really good shape.’ That to me is what’s really fun and exciting, and what this event is all about.
Q: What does it mean to you to be inducted into the Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees?
A: One, it’s hugely humbling … the thing that’s more satisfying is that I did none of this. Like I said, when I came here to Sacramento District originally, I thought, ‘Oh my heavens, what am I doing’ – there was this fear factor. But the award has nothing to do with Chris Altendorf, this award is about the team members that I worked with, whether it was peers, or the board of directors, or the engineering experts - it was the teams that took this district to the next level, and I am all about teamwork. So I think it should be a 2006-2009 Distinguished Team Award.
Q: You are also the first woman to be inducted … in an era where we are striving to “normalize” women’s high accomplishments, rather than point out that, hey – it’s a woman who did this – what does it mean to you to be the first woman inducted?
A: For me, it’s just merely a fact … For me. And for whatever reason, and I can’t explain it to you – maybe it was just my personality, or maybe it was fighting with five older brothers growing up – I never felt that I was deprived of anything because I was a female. I never felt that. That being said, though, I know there are those instances, those cases where females have felt that way. But for me, individually, (being the first woman inducted) is just a fact. But if it’s meaningful for somebody else that’s in the district or in the Corps of Engineers that a woman got this award, and that is motivating to them or satisfying to them, then that’s a big deal.
Q: Away from work, what do you do with your ‘spare’ time? What are your Hobbies?
A: My husband and I love our time in Colorado. We love to hike, we love to ski … we really like outdoor experiences, and also love to travel and explore. We’ve done New Zealand and took vacation time in both Japan and Korea. We explored Hawaii while living there and love to visit England where we have some family. And yet I will tell people this – we have no problem binge watching an entire Netflix series! – I’m okay with that too.
Dr. Christine Altendorf has spent more than 25 years in civil service with assignments at districts, divisions, and Headquarters-level USACE positions. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, a Master of Science degree in Biosystems and Civil Engineering, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Biosystems and Civil Engineering, all from Oklahoma State University.