As long as he can remember, Eric Clay has sought out the best place to serve.
That desire motivated him to join the U.S. Army after high school as a way to gain new experiences and see the world beyond his hometown of Springfield.
After serving in the military, he began a career in law enforcement, working in Missouri and Florida before moving into private security – as a contractor in international hotspots and back in the U.S. as director of security at Disney World.
The unique experiences he had hoped for as a teenager began to add up quickly:
· He was among the first group of air marshals.
· He provided security in more than 35 countries.
· He’s negotiated with village leaders in rural Afghanistan.
· He helped build a school in northern Iraq.
· He’s been a bodyguard for Ariana Grande, Shaquille
O’Neal and Colin Powell.
· He’s had his entire wardrobe forcibly replaced by a
baroness in Hungary.
As he carried out his duties at Disney, he began to look for a new opportunity: a chance to come home. He and his wife wanted to be close to family; when the director’s position opened at CoxHealth, it seemed like the perfect fit.
About 100 days into his tenure, we sat down with Eric for his take on what it means to serve the hospital where he and his children were born. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: How did you begin your career?
As a young man, I worked so hard to get out of Springfield (laughs). I was convinced that Springfield was too small for me, so much so that I joined the Army to get away. I always wanted something bigger. Even when I first started as a police officer in St. Louis, I knew I wanted to be a fed at some point. I was always looking for something where my playground was bigger. I’ve been very fortunate – doors kept opening for me that allowed me to do a lot of different things.
Q: How did you come to work in security?
I was in law enforcement on Sept. 11, 2001. After that, I wanted to contribute in a greater way, like most everyone did. The FAA was looking for air marshals and I applied for the program. I was one of the first few hundred who got hired.
So, I was working for Homeland Security and I was based in Dallas, but my family was in Orlando. I tried to get a transfer to Florida, but then an opportunity in international security came up with (private security contractor) Blackwater. They offered more money and more time at home with my family, and a chance to still serve my country.
Q: What was that like?
From 2005-2010, I worked in 35 different countries, everywhere from nice areas – Germany, Italy, the U.K. – to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan – places that aren’t quite as nice. They have their own charm, but they’re more dangerous. I never would have envisioned doing something like that, but it was great. I got to experience cultures I never would have seen if I had stayed in law enforcement.
Q: What’s the most valuable thing you learned from those experiences?
It was definitely an education for me. It taught me how to accomplish things in difficult environments. In Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re hundreds of miles from a major city and you’re dealing with a small group of tribesman. Just from interacting with them, I learned how to make what I wanted to accomplish something they wanted to accomplish. I looked for commonalities in how we could get things done.
I learned a lot about diplomacy and how building relationships with people allows you to do a lot more than you could without those skills.
Q: What brought you back to work in the United States?
When I interviewed for the job at Disney, I planned to come back to Florida to go to law school. I attended for a year before deciding I couldn’t work full-time, be a parent full-time and be a full-time student. I wanted the law experience because I want to get into politics – I actually aspire to be a congressman.
Q: What drives that political ambition?
I have a desire to contribute and Congress would be a good opportunity to do something on a national scale. Eventually, I would aspire to go even higher than Congress.
I have a friend who’s a federal judge who has warned me about politics and encouraged me to “be the guy behind the scenes, not the guy.” But, I’ve been involved in public service from a young age and I don’t think I’d be content behind the scenes. I’d want to be someone who could actually implement change.
Q: What does your typical day off look like?
My wife enjoys working on furniture. By extension, that means I enjoy working on furniture (laughs). My weekends are usually: gym first thing in the morning, breakfast, and then we go to estate sales or flea markets where she looks for pieces of furniture that she can work on.
I also like to volunteer – I spend time in Child Life on my lunch, I work with Habitat for Humanity, Cub Scouts, and I’m a reserve deputy sheriff. I like to find ways to give back.
Q: What’s something people are surprised to learn about you?
I have more clothing than my wife does. I have a huge closet. She’s not real happy about that.
Q: How did you get into fashion?
When I was working overseas, I worked some in oil exploration. On one assignment, I was working for a baroness in Hungary. I had just bought a new suit that I thought was fantastic. She disapproved.
She took me to a store and told me to throw away the entire suit, tie, shoes, everything. She bought me some clothes and said, “From now on, these are the clothes you will wear.” I bought a lot of clothing that met her specifications and it’s continued from there. I couldn’t believe I was throwing away everything I had just purchased before I flew over there! But, she purchased me some nice things, so I couldn’t really complain at that point.
Q: What’s it like to be home?
As I’ve gotten older, I see that Springfield is my home. My daughter, my grandson and my siblings are here.
I was born here, my kids were born here and I’m very happy to be part of the system. My wife
worked as a nurse in Labor and Delivery for years, we know what a great place it is and we’re very happy to be here.
On the job: the first 100 days
Q: What has the new role been like so far?
Health care is a lot different than the entertainment world, but it’s similar to Disney in that we want to provide a secure environment that is open and welcoming to the families who come here.
It’s a big job – I’ve been traveling to Monett and Branson and working to create a standardized department that provides the same level of service on all of our campuses.
There was an opportunity to get people working more closely together and I’m enjoying seeing the department become a team. It’s great for the system to have a well-oiled, focused machine that is doing a lot to improve our safety.
Q: What are some of the first changes you've pursued in the department?
We’ve changed scheduling to make better use of our resources and we’ve created new positions to create a career ladder within the department.
We’ve added sergeant positions to ease people into supervisory roles. We also created a major position, the second most senior position, to handle day-to-day operations, allowing me to spend more time in Branson and Monett.
Everybody has been great to work with, from the administration on down. The team has been amazing in trying out new things and helping make these changes.
At a glance: Eric Clay’s ‘most recents’
Most recently read: “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror”
Most recently watched: “We Steal Secrets,” a documentary on Wikileaks. “I watch a lot of documentaries. Some emails I was involved in were released by Wikileaks, so I have an interest in what they do.”
Most recently listened to: Satellite radio in the car – usually Fox News. For music, it’s the iPod at the gym – “The iPod is mostly Metallica and Judas Priest. That’s what I listened to in high school.”