Paving the Way for Four Generations: The Chesley Family
“I loved spending time with my dad hunting, camping, or any other activity,” Phil Chesley says about his father, Elmo Chesley. “Going to work with him at Roadrunner Paving was just another adventure and opportunity to be with him.” But Elmo didn’t cut his son any slack when it came to job performance with his promotion to asphalt roller operator in 1981. “Elmo then told me I had two weeks to figure it out, or I'd be back on the dumb end of a shovel knocking down piles of asphalt,” Phil says. “That was all the motivation I needed.”
Operating the roller gave Phil a catbird seat to the entire paving operation. He took advantage of learning how jobs were laid out and executed, which later led to him starting his own firm, Sinagua Paving. “Paving practices are subject to variables such as materials, weather, grade conditions, asphalt delivery/trucking, and quality control requirements,” Phil says. “I could not have had a better classroom, learning from two of the most respected pavers in the state, Elmo, and his partner, Leon Slade.”
The Chesley construction story, however, starts a generation earlier with Phil’s grandfather, Verno
n. During the Great Depression, Vernon Chesley enrolled in a heavy equipment mechanics training program and subsequently worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program. During World War II, Vernon was employed by contractors in Arizona supporting the war effort and became a foreman for W.A. Bechtel Co. in 1941.
After the war, Vernon changed occupations and farmed cotton near Wilcox in Cochise County. However, a combination of bad weather and low commodity prices led him back to construction. The family moved to Phoenix in 1951, and Vernon became a heavy equipment mechanic for Arizona Sand & Rock Co. (ASR).
The following year, Vernon took an 8-month leave of absence to become part of Operation Blue Jay, a military project that built Thule Air Base in Greenland. He worked as a tractor mechanic with North Atlantic Constructors. The joint American-Danish facility was part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defense network. Afterward, Vernon returned from the Arctic to become the shop foreman at ASR and oversaw several major equipment overhauls.
Vernon later worked for DC Speer Construction Co. in Lake Havasu City, where he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1964. “Grandpa lived nearly 20 years after that but never regained his physical strength enough to enjoy outdoor activities, Phil says. “But he had 15 grandkids and enjoyed being around them and telling stories about his adventures.”
Meanwhile, Elmo, Vernon’s son, grew up in the Gila Valley near Thatcher, working on the family farm. He took machining classes in high school and enjoyed repairing cars, tractors, and, eventually, heavy equipment. Elmo served in World War II as a Corporal in the 228th Field Artillery Battalion. Because of his motorbike experience, he initially trained as a motorcycle dispatcher at Fort Hood, Texas, before being transferred to artillery in preparation for the invasion of Europe. “Lucky for us, he was reassigned, as motorcycle riders had some of the highest mortality rates in the war,” Phil says. Elmo was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during his service, which included landing at Normandy on June 10th with their heavy artillery once the beaches were secure for larger transports.
After the war, Elmo farmed cotton with Vernon on his leased property they cleared near Willcox in Cochise County. The crop was not even worth harvesting, due to a late monsoon and a worldwide slump in cotton price, however. The experience led Vernon to move to Phoenix, while Elmo became a bulldozer operator in Tucson before joining his father at ASR.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Jul/Aug 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 4.