Albert J. Marro / Staff File Photo
Former Windsor County Sen. Edgar May stands inside the health and recreation center in Springfield that is named after him. May, who was influential in many fields, died Thursday in Arizona.
SPRINGFIELD — Edgar May, a longtime political force in his adopted hometown of Springfield and his adopted home state of Vermont, died Thursday morning in Arizona.
May, 83, was a man of many careers and embodied the quintessential immigrant’s success story: a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist, a longtime Vermont legislator, the former chief operating officer of the Special Olympics and a key administration figure in the Kennedy and Johnson years war on poverty.
He also helped establish the Howard Dean Center, which finally brought college-level education courses to Springfield, another longtime May dream.
May, a native of Zurich, Switzerland, immigrated to the United States in 1940 when he was 10 years old with his widowed mother and 6-year-old sister Madeleine, who went on to become Vermont’s 77nd governor. The Jewish family was fleeing the Nazi threat in 1940.
The two siblings shared a profound love of Vermont; both started their professional lives in journalism and ended up in government.
Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin said Thursday that her brother had suffered a stroke about three weeks ago at his winter home in Green Valley, Ariz. He died at the hospice at the Veterans Administration Hospital for Southern Arizona on Thursday morning, she said.
Kunin, who had just returned from Arizona, said her brother died very peacefully and was in no pain.
“He was very proud to be an American citizen,” she said, noting she and her older brother got their passion for public service from their mother and her belief in the possibilities in America.
Even though Kunin reached the Vermont Legislature in 1972, two years before he did, she said, “He was always my role model.”
Kunin said she and her children flew from Vermont to Arizona during the past 12 days to be with May and to say their goodbyes.
“In his final days, he said, ‘I’ve been very lucky,’” she said, listing his diverse and highly successful careers ranging from investigative reporter to chief executive officer of the Kennedy family’s Special Olympics.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said he served with May in the Legislature — when May was the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Shumlin was a rookie House member from Putney.
“Edgar had such extraordinary practical skills. He could balance (a) budget and he convinced people you couldn’t spend money you didn’t have in really tough times. And he never lost his commitment to people who didn’t have a voice,” said Shumlin, a fellow Democrat. “You didn’t get anything done without Edgar.”
“This is a huge loss to Vermont,” said Shumlin, who marveled that May never ran for higher office. But May was happy serving the people he knew and lived in his community, he said.
“Edgar was a guy who was comfortable in his own skin,” said Shumlin.
A dapper man whose European heritage never left him, May was nonetheless known for making friends across the political aisle and class spectrum, enjoying equally a high-level political discussion to talking about the best way to pluck a wild turkey. He had keen political instincts. Back in March 2004, he predicted a little-known state senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, would eventually become president.
He spent a year undercover in the New York welfare system for the Buffalo Evening News, which won him the Pulitzer. That work caught the attention of Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of President John Kennedy, who brought him to Washington to work for him. It was a personal and professional relationship that lasted until Shriver’s death in 2011.
May’s coveted invitation to Shriver’s daughter Maria’s wedding to Arnold Schwarzenegger in April 1986 even spiced the timing of the adjournment of the 1986 Legislature, as May was key to final negotiations, but was eager to make the trip to Hyannis for the Kennedy family nuptials.
George Lamb, a Springfield attorney, worked closely with May on his dream of a recreation center in Springfield for everyone, regardless of age, finances or physical ability.
“This is a day of sadness and a day of joyousness,” said Lamb. “Think about the legacy Edgar has left the town of Springfield and this part of Vermont and New Hampshire and all the people who are going to enjoy this in generations going forward. It’s emblematic of a life well-lived.”
May served 16 years in the Vermont Legislature, eight years in the House, elected first in 1974 and eight years in the Senate, served until 1991.
May was selected to head the Senate Appropriations Committee the same year his sister was elected governor, a move that raised questions about the siblings’ power.
But not with the Republicans in the Senate, said Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington, the current dean of the Senate. No one, Doyle said, doubted May’s integrity or ability to oversee the budget proposed by the Kunin administration.
“He was greatly respected,” said Doyle, a Republican. “I told him the Republicans thought he would make an excellent chair and he turned out to be an excellent chair. By today’s standards, Edgar was very bipartisan. One of his best friends was Bob Gannett,” he said, referring to the late Sen. Robert Gannett, a Republican from Brattleboro.
Rep. Peter F. Welch, D-Vt., first met May when he was running for the state Senate from Windsor County in 1980, the two Democrats became seatmates after May was elected to the Senate in 1982.
Welch said May was a talented communicator and politician. “He was the best politician I served with,” said Welch, who was Senate president while May was head of Appropriations. May could think strategically, with the long view better than anyone, he said.
“I really admired the combination of aggressive commitment to getting things done and his restraint, which is so missing in leadership and politicians now,” said Welch.
“Every day was about trying to make things better for the people of Vermont, especially for poor people. He dedicated his life to helping folks. He loved good writing, reading and good food. He knew how to live life.”
Welch said while it was obvious May was at times in great pain from injuries he received in a 1960s car crash that claimed the life of his first wife Louise, “he never complained.”
Welch said May easily could have been elected governor, but might have been held back by his health issues.
Stephen C. Terry, vice president of corporate development and external at Green Mountain Power, and former managing editor of the Rutland Daily Herald, was a close friend of May’s. Terry said May first came to Vermont to work for a weekly newspaper, the Bellows Falls Times in the 1950s, and went on to bigger newspapers, but eventually returned to Vermont.
His historic home, Muckross, the former home of Jones & Lamson Machine Tool Co. executive W.D. Woolson, was a great love of May’s.
“He was an early believer in renewable energy,” Terry said, laughing, recalling the effort May put into keeping a small DC-power hydro station working that provided Muckross with electric heat.
After he left the Legislature in 1991, Shriver again called him to Washington, D.C., to head up the Special Olympics, Terry said, and then May returned to Springfield and set his sights on establishing the recreation center.
“He shook every foundation tree and every corporate tree that could possibly be shaken. It was interesting. He never seemed to stop,” said Terry, who recalled May “loved to ski, particularly at Okemo Mountain, and loved to cook, eat good food and drink fine wine and talk.”
Bob Flint, the executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corp., first met May when he was a radio reporter at then-Springfield radio station WCFR, and later worked with his closely on the creation of the rec center.
“When he was in the Legislature, he participated in the Citizens Forum, and in typical Edgar fashion held the record for the longest opening statement,” recalled Flint with an laugh Thursday. “I think it was 18 minutes of a 30-minute show.”
“At the end of the day, he was always a journalist. He had such a curious mind and he learned long ago not to accept what is said and to give a voice to those who needed it,” said Flint.
He later worked with him to found and fund raise for the recreation center.
Al Craigue of North Springfield was 54 years old when he first met May. Craigue said he was coming off surgery when his doctors recommended he join the just opened recreation center. “I am legally blind and disabled,” said Craigue, who said a “fondness for beer” had gotten him into trouble in the past. He called the rec center and by sheer coincidence got May on the line.
“He told me they have a scholarship program for people who don’t have a lot,” said Craigue, who said he depends on a disability check. “He said “I’ll sponsor you, no problem,’” recalled Craigue on Thursday afternoon.
“He was a very nice man and I’d never met him until March 2007 He helped me. He just seemed to be kind and didn’t care if I was white, black or green,” said Craigue, who said he still goes to the recreation center daily. “He treated me with respect. In my book, he was a great man.”
Kunin said the family was still finalizing plans for his memorial service, which she said would be held in Springfield, at the recreation center bearing his name, sometime in the new year.
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