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'He really saw education as the answer'

Martha Love May and Jack May

Professor Jack May was a man of his word, with a strong desire to connect people with education. “He really saw education as the answer—everybody deserves it,” says Marianne Causey, one of the former Warnell professor’s eight children. “And, they deserve equal and good education. And I appreciate that.”

His students in the 1960s and ’70s, when Jack taught silviculture and soils in the forestry school, might have grumbled about his dedication to the cause (he was known for giving lectures on football Saturdays that could last into the second quarter, leaving some students to note their displeasure on the first-floor bathroom wall). But his expertise in the field of forestry, his life-long friendships and his faith paved the way for a legacy that continues today.

He created the Martha Love May Memorial Scholarship in honor of his wife, “Mattie,” who shared his passions for education, equality and civil rights. Mattie, their children say, was the rock of their family. And while Jack and Mattie had lifelong friendships with colleagues in Warnell, they were also resolute in their commitment to the Athens community, working for civil rights through a variety of organizations, causes and their own personal actions.

Before moving to Athens in 1958, Mattie started a daycare for Black families. In Athens, she continued to create and build programs for underprivileged youth and adults, volunteering in their church’s adult education program and volunteering with East Athens Head Start. She also received a library science degree and served as one of two white teachers at the all-Black Burney-Harris High School.

Jack was active as a Rotary Club member and worked as a consultant to forestry companies when he wasn’t teaching. The family never missed a Sunday service at First Presbyterian Church, where many of the kids sang in the choir. But they also attended Black churches and constantly worked to connect with families to register their children for school or find services they might need.

“They visited Black families and told them they had a right to go to school wherever they wanted to go. … We did have Black maids in our home—Mama and Daddy paid them more than anybody in the neighborhood, and he also paid for their kids to go to college. So, he really did put his money where his mouth was,” adds Causey. Her father was respected for his roles in the church and civic organizations, while his civil rights work caused tensions in those same spaces. “He was popular with people—he never missed a Rotary meeting or a Sunday service at First Presbyterian. And he had a great job. But a lot of people still hated his guts for other work he did.”

Causey remembers a day in 1970 when racial tensions became heated at the newly integrated Athens High School, where she was a junior. She called her parents to ask them to come pick her up. Jack refused. “He said, ‘Oh no, history is being made. You will stay there and be a part of it,’” she says.

Despite the family’s size, Jack and Mattie always welcomed more. Jack worked to bring more women and international students to the forestry program, while Mattie worked to provide a home for any student or community member who needed a safe place to stay. Holidays—or, even, Sunday dinners—might include a graduate student from the Philippines or Sri Lanka, or an Athens resident who might need a meal. On several occasions, the family provided shelter to one of Mattie’s co-workers, a Black teacher and her family—something unheard of in the 1960s.

Their tires were slashed. Dead animals were left on their porch. One night, a cross was burned in their yard.

Throughout it all, Jack and Mattie persevered. They embraced their students and their community, holding steadfast to the idea that everyone should have access to an education. Today, the scholarship in Mattie’s name represents how much Jack wanted women to feel welcome in a male-dominated field such as forestry.

“He felt like it was a tribute to Mama and what she’d done in making us realize how important an education was,” says daughter Deanie Fincher. Causey agreed. “He couldn’t have had his professional life without our mother. It really was set up to encourage women to do the sciences, and to honor a woman in her own right—she did a lot in a boxed-in era of, ‘women don’t do this.’”

And, despite Jack’s tough lectures and high standards for his students, his children say he won them over. “Some of them have said, ‘In the end, we admired your dad,’” says Fincher. “He really stuck to his guns, he believed in a certain thing, and he never wavered from that.”

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