Edgar MayDecember 29,2012
SPRINGFIELD — Edgar May, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a Vermont state senator and chief operating officer of Special Olympics, from Springfield, who dedicated his life to public service, died Dec. 27, 2012, at the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Hospital in Tucson, Ariz., where he made his winter home. The cause of death was a series of strokes, according to his sister, Madeleine May Kunin. He was 83. His family and loved ones were at his bedside in his final days.
May was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on June 27, 1929. He immigrated to the United States, debarking from the SS Manhattan in New York City on June 10, 1940, with his widowed mother and sister. The Jewish family left Switzerland because of the threat of the Holocaust. May, who recently discovered his green card, was proud to be an immigrant. He and his sister often quoted their mother’s words, “Anything is possible in America.”
May graduated from Princeton, N.J., high school in 1948. During his high school years, he lived with a family on a dairy farm in Skillman, N.J. He recalled that experience as a special part of his life, when he learned the importance of hard work, rising every morning at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and achieving his independence.
He attended night school at Columbia University of General Studies while working as a file clerk for The New York Times. A course in journalism taught by professor John Hohenberg inspired him to become a reporter. He completed his studies at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree, summa cum laude. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Achievement in 1997.
He was a veteran of the Korean conflict and served as a speechwriter for military officers, while stationed in Chicago. He became a resident of Springfield in 1965, after he purchased Muckross Park, which became his lifelong, much-beloved home. He treasured listening to its roaring waterfall and spent many summer days swimming laps, arranging picnics at his pond, and tramping through the woods. His nephews and his great-nephews caught their first fish in Edgar’s pond.
His journalistic career began when he worked as a freelance writer for several years. His first reporting job was for the weekly newspaper The Bellows Falls (Vt.) Times. He later worked for the Fitchburg (Mass.) Sentinel and The Buffalo Evening News. While in Buffalo he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for local reporting for a 14-part series on the public welfare system, titled “Our Costly Dilemma.” Other awards include the Walter A. Bingham Award of the Buffalo Newspaper Guild for outstanding journalism in Western New York; Page One Award Buffalo Newspaper Guild, and Best Feature Award from the New England Weekly Press Association.
The series resulted in a book, “The Wasted Americans,” in 1964, which brought him to the attention of the Lyndon Johnson administration. Sargent Shriver asked him to join the War on Poverty. He served as inspector general of the Office of Economic Opportunity and fondly recalled establishing Head Start programs throughout the country. He was also deputy director of VISTA, the national service program designed to prevent poverty.
His government service initiated a lifelong friendship with the Shriver and Kennedy families. After May’s wife, Louise Breason May, died in an automobile accident in Springfield and he was seriously injured, his physicians advised him that it was unlikely that he would work again, but he proved them wrong.
Shriver invited him to be his special assistant in the American Embassy in Paris. During those years, he lived in the same apartment building as the writer James Jones and became part of a social group of writers who enjoyed many evenings of fine wine and hearty camaraderie. He was a senior consultant to the Ford Foundation, 1970-1975, where he wrote for Corrections Magazine. In addition to prison reform, he focused on drug abuse prevention and enhancing citizen participation.
He married his second wife, Judith Hill May, in France, where they met, and returned to Muckross Park in Vermont in 1973. Although they divorced in 2001, they enjoyed life at Muckross Park for many years and provided a welcoming second home to the Kunin clan of nephews and nieces.
May served in the Vermont House of Representatives, 1974-1982, and the Vermont Senate, 1984-1990, where he chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee. After leaving the Legislature, he expressed his appreciation for fine food by becoming associated with NECI, the New England Culinary Institute. He became a skilled pastry chef and wrote a manuscript of a cookbook for diabetics.
He began a new career in Washington as COO of Special Olympics, working closely with Eunice Shriver, from 1993-1995. Those years gave him a special appreciation of the needs of the disabled and their untapped potential.
When he returned to Vermont, he was not ready for retirement, and turned his energy to revitalize the city of Springfield, which had experienced a decline because of the loss of its highly regarded machine tool industry. When the city received a grant from the state in return for situating a prison there, May successfully lobbied the Springfield Board of Selectmen to use the grant to build a health and recreation center for the community in an abandoned Jones & Lamson machine tool building. He spearheaded an ambitious fundraising effort, was personally involved in the construction of the center, and recruited a substantial amount of donated material and volunteer labor, including female prisoners from the local correction center. He took great pleasure in watching groups of children cavorting in the pool, and seeing elderly citizens step carefully into the therapy pool. The community recognized his contribution by naming the center in his honor — The Edgar May Health and Recreation Center — on his birthday in 2009.
He continued to serve as a confidant and mentor to his many friends and neighbors from all walks of life, helping them to solve problems, both personal and political. He was proud to be a Vermonter, and took great pleasure in its beauty and admired its successful form of citizen government. He was seldom at a loss for words when discussing the events of the day.
He was very close to his family, including his sister, whom he escorted down the aisle of the Vermont House of Representatives when she was inaugurated governor for her first term in 1985. He took particular pleasure in the accomplishments of his nephews and nieces, and formed a loving relationship with his dear friend, Sarah Clay.
He is predeceased by his first wife, Louise Breason May. Survivors are: Madeleine May Kunin and her husband, John W. Hennessey, of Burlington; Arthur S. Kunin, of Shelburne; Maggie Lockridge, of Rancho Mirage, Calif.; his nieces, Micaela Bensko, of Valencia, Calif., Julia Kunin, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; his nephews, Peter B. Kunin and his wife, Lisa Kunin, of South Burlington, Adam W. Kunin and his wife, Jane Kunin, of Shelburne, Daniel Kunin, of Montreal and Burlington, James Lockridge and his wife, Victoria, of Burlington; his former wife, Judith Hill May, of Napa, Calif.; his goddaughter, Elena Schlossberg, of Haymarket, Va.; his great-niece, Sophia Lockridge, of Burlington; his great-nephews, Will Kunin, David Kunin, Sara Kunin, all of Burlington, Samuel Kunin and Jacob Kunin, of Shelburne.
The family wishes to express their gratitude for the love and care provided to Edgar May, by his good friends, in Green Valley, Ariz.: Peggy and Gunnar Bonthron, and Sharon and Gary Rezac Andersen.
In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Edgar May’s memory may be made to: Edgar May Health and Recreation Center, 140 Clinton St., Springfield, VT, 05156, www.myreccenter.org, firstname.lastname@example.org.
A celebration of Edgar May’s life, will be held at the Edgar May Health and Recreation Center in Springfield on Sunday, Jan. 6, at 2 p.m.
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