With the death of Edgar May last week Vermont lost a good citizen, a good friend, a good neighbor.
For 16 years May was a member of the Legislature where he earned a reputation across party lines for his integrity and good sense. He served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee during the time when his sister, Madeleine Kunin, was serving as governor. The two were a powerful pair, but no one questioned whether the senator was able to operate independently of the governor. Kunin, who was four years younger than her brother, said he had always been her role model.
They shared a story of struggle and achievement. Their mother brought them from Switzerland to America in 1940 as the Nazi conquest of Europe put the survival of all Jews in peril. May was 10 years old at the time.
After the war May and his sister both came to Vermont as journalists, and it was in his reporting that he set the direction for his life. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for a series of articles for the Buffalo Evening News on the welfare system. The articles led to a book, “The Wasted Americans,” which caught the attention of the Johnson administration. Sargent Shriver enlisted May in the War on Poverty, and May became inspector general of the Office of Economic Opportunity and deputy director of VISTA, the volunteer anti-poverty program. His connection to the Shriver and Kennedy families led to his work as chief operating officer for the Special Olympics in the 1990s.
The needs of the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged were always at the center of May’s work both in and out of politics. As a special consultant for the Ford Foundation, he focused on prison reform and drug abuse prevention. In the Johnson administration he helped establish the Head Start program.
At the same time his friends describe a man who relished his friends and enjoyed good food and good talk. He created community wherever he went, especially in his longtime hometown, Springfield.
After his retirement from politics May became the driving force behind the creation of a new nonprofit recreation center in Springfield that would provide recreation opportunities for everybody in the region. He was a principal fundraiser and booster of the project, guiding it through from start to finish. It is now known as the Edgar May Health and Recreation Center.
May was a master of politics, but he was not a prisoner of the limits of politics. He was a pragmatist who could work across the political aisle, but he never abandoned his vision of politics as an instrument for the good of the people, especially those who needed help. It is noteworthy that among those he enlisted to help with the recreation center were inmates of the women’s prison in Springfield.
Over the years May won the respect of Democrats and Republicans and the affection of community members to whom he was happy to reach out a helping hand. He was insistent that the recreation center should serve people with limited means or physical capabilities.
May’s glittering personal connections never placed him outside or above the Vermont community. He worked for Sargent Shriver at the U.S. Embassy in Paris for a time and was a friend of the Kennedys and Shrivers, but he never forgot who he was or assumed a pretentious pose. His work in the Legislature and as a citizen of Springfield was successful because he loved Vermont and Vermonters.
It was a day of multiple milestones in 1985 when he escorted his sister into the House chamber to be sworn in as Vermont’s first woman governor. It was a milestone for Madeleine Kunin, who had learned much from her brother. It was a milestone for the May family who had traveled from the cauldron of genocide to the new home that inspired years of service. It was a milestone for Vermonters who had recognized the gift of humanity, compassion and integrity that Edgar May and his sister had brought to their state.
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