Willie May, 75, led Evanston Township High School to excel in athletics
Track athlete Willie May, in a photo that hangs on his high school's Wall of Fame in south suburban Blue Island. | File photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 9, 2012 6:22PM
For nearly five decades, Willie May did his best to make Evanston a better place to go to school for everybody.
The longtime administrator, teacher and coach died March 28 from a rare blood disease, amyloidosis. He was 75.
Services will be held Saturday, at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago. Visitation takes place from 10-11 a.m., with the service from 11 a.m. until noon.
“You don’t know the true measure of someone’s life until, unfortunately, they are gone,” said Evanston athletic director Chris Livatino, whom May once hired to be the boys head volleyball coach. “He was not only a great coach, a great teacher, but a great human being. He made the effort to impact everybody’s lives.”
Born in 1936 in Alabama, May moved to Chicago’s South Side. He attended high school in south suburban Blue Island. A track star, May studied at Indiana University, where he won seven Big Ten championships in hurdles.
May reached the peak of the sport when he earned a silver medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Following his sporting career, May made his way back to the Chicago area and found a home at Evanston in 1967 as an assistant coach for the boys track and field team, alongside head coach Ron Helberg, a former teammate in Blue Island. May also taught physical education at the school.
Five state trophies
May took over as head coach of the program in 1975 and led the Wildkits to 26 conference championships and five state trophies, including the state title in 1979.
“He was another role model to follow as a young man,” said Fenton Gunter, a 1974 graduate and the girls head track and field coach. He played football and ran track for May. “He was an extension of home, like another parent away from the house. You knew what he said went. He knew how to get a message across to you.”
Don Michelin and Vernard Harris were there when May started at Evanston, when times were different at the school.
“The political world was changing,” said Michelin, who graduated in 1969. “There were only three blacks on the academic staff at Evanston, but we were going through some changes. We wanted the school’s staff to reflect us, and he understood what we were going through.
“He also said there are 24 hours in a day. You can do your political thing and also take care of your business on the track. He could relate what we were going through and guide us through that.”
May made history in 1983 when he became Evanston’s first African-American athletic director, a position he held for 16 years until he retired in 2000.
“He was capable of communicating with all the coaches and kids,” said Harris, a 1968 graduate. “The kids saw him bringing in more coaches they could identify with.
“It was steady progress, but that is what the world is about. He kept it going smoothly, and he fought off the rough edges. He was the centerpiece of it all. He could communicate with anybody, and that’s what made him so great.”
Michelin was proud of his alma mater for promoting May.
“That was part of his vision when he came,” Michelin said. “He wanted to see moves like that, guys like him in leadership roles. Changes were being made.”
Livatino, a 1991 Evanston graduate who became athletic director in 2006, said May was a transcendental figure at the school.
“Here was someone, a complete outsider, who came to a tight-knit community, a closed community that doesn’t always embrace outsiders, and he was instrumental in our evolution,” Livatino said.
During his tenure, May hired Michelin, Harris and Gunter as assistant coaches for the boys track and field program.
May named Gunter the girls head track and field coach in 1991. Gunter won the first of seven state championships in his rookie season.
Other notable coaches May welcomed to the staff included Kevin Auger, Shirley Nannini, John Riehle, Franz Calixte and Marx Succes. Auger has won two state titles with the boys swimming team, while Succes captured a state title in girls soccer and Nannini won a state title in badminton.
At the time, Gunter never looked at May as a pioneering athletic director.
“He was just another good one, and each new one seemed to get a little better,” Gunter added. “He oversaw dramatic and rapid growth.
“It’s a tremendous loss, but it was a heck of a time when he was here.”