Long before most of us tackled Wichita’s snow-packed streets last week, Joe Pajor was out driving around by 5 a.m.
Hours later on most days, he was the city’s face and voice, explaining why the streets weren’t cleared and everything wasn’t back to normal.
Pajor also was there last June explaining why the city wouldn’t be hauling downed trees and limbs from private property after a windstorm that produced gusts of nearly 90 mph.
A month earlier Pajor was telling the public about a leaky city valve that resulted in sewage being dumped in the Arkansas River.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
If something is going wrong with city streets, sanitation and water pipes and a bunch of other things, Pajor has to explain why.
Not a fun job.
But it’s part of his job as deputy director of public works and utilities. A native of Chicago and proud of it – “The city of Chicago, not some unknown Chicago suburb” – Pajor has worked for Wichita for 35 years.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on this job,” he said. “It’s all about pressure management. You do what you can and accept what you can’t do.
“When it’s a good-news story, I’ll delegate it down. When it’s a bad-news story, I’ll take it. I’m comfortable with it.”
He often uses a dose of humor in delivering the information – especially when he knows folks aren’t going to like the message.
On last week’s storm that began lighter than expected before dumping nearly 9 inches of snow within a 12-hour span on Tuesday, Pajor cracked, “The storm was kind of like the Shockers: It started slow and made up for lost time.”
On a lighthearted solution to the city’s shortage of salt, he said, “I’m only using pepper at home.”
When asked about how much salt-sand mix the city had before the storm, he replied: “It was 1,900. That’s tons. We only work in tons. Kind of like my doctor does when he weighs me.”
Pajor, who turns 61 on Tuesday, also is quick to deliver his lines off camera.
After snow-packed conditions on K-96 delayed trucks from hauling salt to Wichita, he quipped: “That salt has been in Hutch for 242,000 years, but we can’t get it the last 60 miles.”
Humor makes tough days a little easier to swallow for Pajor.
“We have to do serious work,” he said, “but we don’t have to get depressed about it. Humor helps in most situations.”
Pajor even has a way of lightening the mood at staff meetings.
“Joe is an optimistic guy,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “It’s one of his great attributes. He has a good sense of timing for humor.”
The oldest of five children – all boys – he may have picked that up from his dad. Pajor’s father, an insurance salesman, put the initials FFB on his business card: Father of Five Boys.
Pajor came to Kansas to go to Benedictine College in Atchison.
“In the 1970s, there were more millionaires in Atchison per capita than anywhere in the country,” he said. “At least that’s what I was told.”
While getting his master’s degree from Wichita State University, he spent the summer of 1976 helping build an electric car for a class project. The Wichita Beacon carried a black-and-white picture of him driving the car on the front page.
When he first started working for the city of Wichita in 1977 – before taking a two-year detour to the private sector – he was an energy resources systems analyst.
Remember, these were the 1970s. The country was just catching on about the need to conserve energy resources.
“The field was brand new,” Pajor said. “I didn’t have to worry about competing with people with much experience.”
The former superintendent’s home for what was known as the P farm on McLean – the city’s jail that kept prisoners busy by growing vegetables – was converted into an energy-saving demonstration house by the city.
One of Pajor’s duties was to help show residents how a black-and-white TV used less energy than color.
His other city titles over the years have included industrial analyst, housing development and energy coordinator, and natural resources coordinator.
The latter position included serving as special project coordinator for renovation of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in the 1990s and serving as the liaison between the city and various baseball ownership groups that have occupied the stadium.
“That was a steep learning curve,” he said. “I enjoyed baseball, although I was terrible at it. My parents made me play.
“It was a great decision because at least I knew something about the game.”
Streets have been his responsibility since moving to public works in 2007. He added sanitation sewer and water lines in 2010 when the department was reorganized.
Multitasking is a required skill.
“I love it,” he said. “One minute you’re working on specifications for a fire truck, the next minute you’ve got a roof leak at the library or a water-line break.”
Juggling issues is one of Pajor’s strong suits, City Council member Janet Miller said.
“Joe’s not easily ruffled,” she said. “That’s a good thing because public works is frequently dealing with things that many of us would could consider emergencies.”
Pajor oversees nearly 4,400 miles of sewer and water lines and 5,000 miles of streets, including 1,500 miles of emergency routes that must be plowed and treated during snow and ice storms. He oversees 450 employees.
Always on call?
“That implies I could go off call,” he said.
But Pajor also said, “This is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to take care of yourself.”
While he may start his day very early, he tries to leave the office at 5:30 p.m. That gives him time to listen to his favorite National Public Radio show – Marketplace – on the drive home.
But it’s not only Pajor’s work that interrupts his down time at home. His wife, Terryl, has worked for the city for 25 years and supervises water lab testing and water plant operators.
When a main line broke overnight recently, both of their cellphones started ringing at 5:30 a.m. The line break was Joe’s problem, but Terryl had to get the pressure turned down at the plant.
And both had to sort out what caused the problem. His line? Or was it caused by a sudden increase in the plant’s water pressure?
“Turned out it was just the line’s time to go,” he said. “It was cast iron and had been in service since two years before the Titanic sank.”
Last week, as he walked through the city’s maintenance facility on McLean, Pajor said, “Notice how quiet it is? That’s a sign of success. Everyone is out working.”
He passed by the parts area and asked, “Where’s Robbie?”
“Lunch,” a woman replied.
“Didn’t he already have lunch this week?” Pajor said with a smile.
As he turned the corner, an employee greets him with a “Hi, Joe.”
Later, Alan King, his boss and director of public works and utilities, said, “Joe’s very much a people person. When it comes time to interact with groups or individuals, he’s really kind of the face of our department.
“He’s very good at making presentations.”
And giving some of his bosses a history lesson. When Layton delved into possibilities of restructuring trash hauling in the city, he first talked it over with Pajor.
“He helped me understand what we’ve tried before,” said Layton, who became city manager five years ago. “It’s amazing how often something will come up and history is important. He has institutional knowledge.”
As Pajor drove back to his City Hall office over the still snow-packed streets, he said, “The streets aren’t too bad if you use caution.
“But if you leave for work at the normal time and drive like you do on clean pavement, it might ruin your day. And worse, in my opinion, it might ruin someone else’s day who is trying to be careful.”