Many pay tribute to May at service
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | January 07,2013
LEN EMERY / STAFF PHOTO
Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., far left, speaks at the memorial service Sunday for former Sen. Edgar May, D-Windsor, who died at age 83 last month in Arizona. May, a Springfield resident since 1965, was recalled by his younger sister, former Gov. Madeleine May Kunin, far right, as her mentor and substitute father.
SPRINGFIELD — Edgar May was remembered Sunday for his passion and compassion, whether it was exuberant yodeling on a ski lift at Magic Mountain, or his determination to help people who didn’t have a voice.
May, 83, of Springfield, who died late last month at his winter home in Arizona, was an author and journalist, a beloved brother and uncle, and the most eloquent state senator in the state’s history, said Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“Bar none,” said Shumlin for emphasis.
May was a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, the first deputy director of VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps, a Springfield state representative and senator from Windsor County, and a force of nature. And a lover of fine red wine, more than one person recalled.
He was a Democrat back when Democrats were in short supply in Republican-rich Vermont.
People from all walks of life came to remember May, who they said was a loyal friend, a good cook, an untiring advocate for those without advantages, and a passionate talker.
The memorial service Sunday afternoon, held at the Edgar May Health and Recreation Center, attracted people from all over Vermont and from many different backgrounds and walks of life. Many current and former legislators attended who knew May from when he was in the Vermont House from 1974 to 1982, and in the Vermont Senate from 1983-1990. There were judges, loggers, and retired social workers.
May was lauded by two governors – including his sister, Gov. Madeleine May Kunin – a congressman, a nephew, a former sister-in-law, and a close friend.
They sat on folding chairs on a special plywood floor erected over the children’s pool, one of the three pools in the center, and recited Jewish prayers of mourning in honor of May as late-winter sun streamed into the room’s big windows.
Shumlin, a Democrat, said he first met May in 1976. The governor said May brought “a sense of fun and adventure to everything.”
May, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was also known for his way with words, Shumlin said.
May came to the United States as a child, fleeing the Nazi Holocaust knowing only three words, “‘yes,’‘no,’ and ‘bathroom,’” recalled a friend, George Lamb of Springfield.
May and his sister fled Europe when they were 10 and 6 years old with their widowed mother, and Kunin led a virtual toast to her brother, who died Dec. 27 at a Veterans Administration hospital in Tucson, Ariz., near his winter home.
Kunin said her older brother was both her mentor and substitute father, since their own father had died in Switzerland when both were young.
She recalled how competitive they could be when both were serving in the Vermont House, and roll call meant Kunin was called ahead of May.
Her brother turned the tables on her, she said, when he got the roll call reversed one day and M came ahead of K, finally.
But both lived by their mother’s credo: “Anything is possible in America,” she said.
She said they shared a lot. “We got mad at the same things and laughed at the same jokes,” said Kunin, who said her brother never viewed himself as a lifelong politician.
He loved to work with his hands, whether it was some repair job at Muckross, his Springfield home, or cooking, later studying at the New England Culinary Institute to be a pastry chef.
May’s former sister-in-law, Maggie Breason Lockridge of Rancho Mirage, Calif., recalled her sister Louise’s meeting with the exuberant yodeler at Magic Mountain in Londonderry back in 1961.
His joie de vivre struck the two sisters, who later that morning met the stranger at the ski tow. Her sister was working in New York City for Voice of America, and May was also living in New York at the time.
Lockridge said she viewed the yodeler as the perfect cure for her sister’s disappointment over a broken engagement, and she gave a friendly push, which collapsed the future couple on top of each other, spawning a romance and marriage three years later.
Lockridge said she and her family remained close to May, despite her sister’s death after only two years of marriage. Her children were named after her sister and Edgar, she said.
“Edgar celebrated life every single day,” she said.
After his 16 years in Montpelier, Lamb said May then began his longest campaign, to raise money for the health and recreation center. The center was built and financed with a combination of state, private and corporate funds.
Shumlin recalled one time when the state budget was all but finished, and $100,000 toward the nonprofit center had been cut at the last minute. May got on the phone with Shumlin, then the Senate president, and then May came to Montpelier to plead his case. He got the $100,000, Shumlin said.
U.S. Rep. Peter F. Welch, D-Vt., who represented Windsor County along with May in the 1980s, recalled May’s ability to defy the laws of gravity — and the state’s billboard law — with his giant campaign sign on top of his old Saab.
May, who first came to the Springfield area in the 1950s as a rookie reporter at the Bellows Falls Times, later married a Springfield woman, Louise Breason, in the 1960s, bought his beloved home Muckross, and endured tragedy after a car crash killed his wife and put him in the hospital for months.
But friends in high places — Sargent Shriver, then-U.S. Ambassador to France and his former boss in the Johnson administration in Washington, got May out of the hospital and working at the embassy in Paris, where May met his second wife, Judith. They returned to Vermont in the early 1970s, and May began his political career in his adopted hometown. The Mays divorced in 2001.
After politics came the pool, so to speak, and May devoted more than 10 years of his life to the project, which he saw as promoting good health in Springfield for generations to come.
May raised millions of dollars for the center, which opened its doors in 2006, after more than nine years of planning, fundraising and some political infighting. It was named in his honor in 2009, to honor his 80th birthday.
Christian Craig, the executive director of the center, said after the service that May’s idea was to help people regain health and stay healthy, and enjoy life.
Craig said Springfield resident Bill Newman, 89, had recently started taking water aerobics classes at the center, and his doctor wondered at his improved health and circulation.
“He has a hard time getting into the pool, but when he’s in, he’s like a fish,” Craig said.
Newman attended the service, along with other center regulars.
Craig said 400 people each day use the center.
“Ten years ago, this was just a vision,” said Craig. “Now there’s a swim team here, practicing four days a week and it’s a hub of activity.”
“Edgar was spot on,” Craig said.