D/FW Airport Exec Committed to Finishing Airport Expansion

Someday soon, Clay Paslay promises, the retrieving skills of Maggie, a British Labrador, will match her vaunted pedigree. Of late, however, there hasn't been much time to play fetch.

Dallas/Fort Worth Airport's so-called $3 billion man -- because of the airport's expansion, which actually cost $2.7 billion -- is too close to the end to lose focus now; just a few more months and the project will be complete. The heavy lifting is over. The Skylink people mover is open and moving people. Terminal D is pretty much finished. He could sit back and let his trusted lieutenants handle the finishing touches, but no. He's not wired that way.

Ronald Clay Paslay finishes the job.

"That's who he is -- he works hard," wife Teresa said. "I would say extremely hard."

Maggie's training will have to wait a little longer.

Paslay is in charge of the design and construction of all major facilities at D/FW Airport. In public, Paslay's speech has a mathematical quality. Sample: "While we were erecting the structure, we had not completely designed the structure."

Anyone who has attended a D/FW operations committee meeting can testify to Paslay's crooked smile and slow, methodical delivery. Likewise, his management of the airport-development department borders on Yoda-like directness: Do or do not; there is no try.

"Get the job done. Get it done on time, on budget. There are no excuses -- that's one of the things he says," said Mark Skjervem, Terminal D's executive manager. "If there's a problem, you get those steely eyes. They penetrate right through you -- and you work the issue until it's solved."

In an interview, when asked about his personal priorities, Paslay sounds like a Marine: "God, family ... ."

Teresa Paslay says in private that her husband's funny, really, and she ought to know, but the public hears things like "The structure is the structure." The public gets the Harvard-trained executive in his business suit -- and he's at ease in that role. But his smile's a little wider, and he seems more at home back at the construction site in a hard hat and an orange safety vest.

Paslay was born Jan. 20, 1956, in south Fort Worth. His grandfather built homes and schools. Paslay's father, Jack, was a builder too, before he switched to computers. His family also included a carpenter, a painter and a house builder.

Paslay calls his father a there-are-no-excuses type of man; and from Paslay, that's a compliment.

"The house I came home to from the hospital, my dad built with his own hands," he said. "The street outside was dirt, so we didn't have a lot of money, but we were rich in other ways."

Early on, he went to apprenticeship school with the local Fort Worth carpenter's union and worked days for his uncle Marvin, eventually earning a journeyman's certificate.

Those early years taught Paslay basic lessons he still lives by: Be practical with money and time, and make sure everybody goes home at the end of the day.

Fast forward to November 1981. Paslay took a low-level inspector job at D/FW Airport. The idea came from the man he bought his Arlington house from -- an airport manager.

At first, he inspected the construction of warehouses on the airport's north side. Construction work followed: the connection between Terminals A and C; the expansion of Terminals A, C and E; the Terminal E satellite and four new runways. "Since then, I've been involved in every construction project at the airport," Paslay said.

In 2000, with D/FW embarking on a five-year, $2.7 billion expansion, airport Director Jeff Fegan turned the entire job over to Paslay.

That put a political bull's-eye on Paslay's back, Fegan said. "There were a lot of critics -- people who wanted to tell us how we should do our business. But he has withstood it, stood up to it."

From the get-go, industry experts, insurance companies and the news media predicted that the costs of the project could get quickly out of hand -- and not just in terms of money.

Five construction workers would die by the end of the project, the insurance companies predicted. At least 2,500 injured workers would have to be sent to the hospital.

"That was a totally unacceptable potential reality," Paslay said. "It was time for us to be leaders."

D/FW insured the workers, trained them on site and put them through quadruple the safety training mandated by federal law. No one has died, and the most serious injury to a construction worker was a broken leg.

Not long into the project, Paslay became very sick -- hepatitis C caught from a surgery he had in high school -- and underwent months of extreme medical treatments to save his liver. When Fegan suggested time off, Paslay declined.

"I guess I'm just not wired that way," Paslay said.

In four days, construction of Terminal D will be complete, pretty much on time and on budget.

Paslay has his health back. He and Teresa, now empty nesters, still live in Arlington. Son Marcus is in culinary school in New York. Daughter Jackie is a Baylor grad living in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Finally, some real vacations -- slow days on a stream with a good fly rod, or hunting, are at hand.

And if Paslay gets an itch for something extra to do, there are always Maggie's retrieving lessons.