If you live in Madison you almost can’t help but know a lot of lawyers. But how many of them seem to really enjoy their work?
Michael May often said, “I love the law.” It was said with a trademark overzealousness that suggested self-mockery. But it also became clear over the seven years that I worked with him and in the following 11 years when he was my good friend, that he really meant it.
In 2004, just a year into my first term as mayor, I hired Mike out of a very competitive field to be Madison city attorney. Even after the initial interview when it was clear that he was the most qualified person for the job, I had him back for another conversation in my office focused on just one thing: Why did he want this job?
Mike was the managing partner at what is now Boardman Clark, a large, well-established law firm based in Madison. He was an expert in municipal law and that, combined with his obvious management skills, made him the best choice for a position that ran what was essentially a smallish law firm within city government.
But he was taking a big pay cut and, because city managers were required to live in the city, he would have to move from a home I knew he loved in Maple Bluff. And, also, did he know about those city council meetings?
Mike’s answer was that he had earned enough money and that he really wanted a new challenge for the last part of his career and that he loved Madison. He ended up serving for 16 years and working for mayors Paul Soglin and Satya Rhodes-Conway after voters showed me the door in 2011. After leaving the city, Mike went back to Boardman on a part-time basis mostly because he just couldn’t stay away from law books.
Michael loved rituals and history and so it was important to him that he become the second-longest serving city attorney in Madison. He had researched it and he knew that the longest-serving person to hold the position was a fellow named Harold Hanson and that Hanson had put in over two decades. Mike wasn’t going to stick around that long so he settled for second place.
When he retired in May 2020 my old staff and I put together a little Zoom program for him (it was the depths of the pandemic) including a mock proclamation. We declared, without any authority to do so, June 20 and June 22 “Michael May Days” in the city of Madison, those being the second longest days of the year. He loved it.
And he really did love Madison. In fact, I think Mike embodied the spirit of this place at its very best. Let me tell you a story that illustrates that. Mike had a habit of reading during those aforementioned sometimes lengthy council meetings. He would read these epic biographies and histories, the book tucked under his desk while the council went on about one thing or another. Then a council member would ask a question of the city attorney. Mike would look up, quietly close his book, sometimes lean over to me to ask what item we were on, listen to the question and then deliver a cogent, decisive answer to what was often a complicated question.
He had studied the lengthy council agenda from top to bottom and anticipated every question that might come up. He was having some fun at the meeting, reading a book for pleasure, but that was because he had already done the hard work. He knew when he had to buckle down and he knew when he could let up and enjoy himself.
And to me, that’s the very essence of Madison. At our best we’re a community that works hard and works smart, but also knows how to have some fun, a community that can be self-aware of its own foibles. It’s no accident that The Onion was founded here. When I criticize our city it’s usually because I feel like we sometimes lose that sense of fun and take ourselves and our causes too seriously. We always work hard, we’re always earnest. But we sometimes forget to lighten up a little.
Mike May never took himself too seriously, but he took his job very seriously. He was beloved by his staff and by my staff in the mayor’s office and, even those who didn’t know him well enough to love him, respected him.
Mike May, a proud Irishman, died Oct. 3 at only 68, the victim of pancreatitis. When John Kennedy died, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was on a TV program and he said about JFK, “I don’t think there is any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually. I guess we thought he had a little more time. So did he.”
All of us who knew him thought we’d have a little more time with Mike May. What Moynihan didn’t say is that you don’t have to be Irish to have your heart broken.
A visitation for Mike is scheduled for this Friday, October 14th from 3 to 7 PM at the Cress funeral home on Speedway.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.