John May was many things, but complacent was not one of them.
As Peconic Landing’s board chairman for the last dozen years, he strived to make the Greenport lifecare community the best place for seniors to enjoy their retirement. The nationally ranked tennis player, who continued to compete into his 80s, was also a loving husband and father of 11 children.
The Southold resident for more than 25 years died Friday from complications due to kidney disease. He was 87.
Family, colleagues and friends, including former Congressman Tim Bishop, recalled Mr. May as a perennial optimist who got the most out of life at every possible turn.
“He was incredible,” his son, Paul, said in an interview Saturday. “He was a completely involved father and grandfather. My kids were devoted to him.”
Mr. May is survived by his wife, Elinor, and children Robert, Paul, Marilyn, Jeff, Kathy, Barbara Mahoney, Joan, Nancy, Peter, Jack and Suzy West, as well as 27 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“Having him as a dad was a wonderful thing,” Marilyn said.“He was kind, he was strong, he was wise. He touched a lot of people in a good way.”
Outside of the family, Paul said his father was widely known and adored for his commitment to the local community.
“He really commanded a room,” Paul said. “Whenever you mention ‘John May,’ people always have very strong, very positive reactions.”
Mr. May had served on Peconic Landing’s board of trustees since its inception over two decades ago and served as chairman since 2003.
“One of the reasons Peconic Landing exists today is because of John May,” said Peconic Landing president and CEO Robert Syron. “This man was just brilliant. He was one of the most influential men in my life.”
Mr. Syron described his colleague as a wise man who always believed in doing the right thing and who always put the interests of the community first in his business decisions.
“He’s one of the finest men I ever met in my life and I will ever know,” Mr. Syron said.“Men of his wisdom, character and values are absolutely amazing when you get to spend time with them and I got to spend 11 years with him.”
During Mr. May’s tenure, Peconic Landing was awarded the Business of the Year award in 2010 from The Suffolk Times. (The newspaper also awarded his wife the Civic Person of the Year award in 2001.)
LeadingAge New York, a state-wide organization of retirement communities, awarded Peconic Landing the Innovation of the Year award in 2012 for developing a “Community Connection” program.
Mr. May dedicated himself to ensuring top-quality accommodations and care for all residents at Peconic Landing, Paul said. He also served on boards at Long Island University and Eastern Long Island Hospital.
He was involved in politics, too. In 1996, he hosted a fundraiser to kick off Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy’s campaign and he did the same in 2002 for Mr. Bishop, whom he had known for more than 30 years.
“I considered him to be one of my mentors,” Mr. Bishop said. “He was a dear friend and a very loyal supporter.”
The former congressman also recalled Mr. May as a “remarkable man” who affected his life in a variety of ways and said he admired the way he lived his life.
“Professionally, he taught me how to work my way through a problem,” he said. “He was very careful, deliberative and methodical in the way he approached issues.”
Mr. Bishop particularly admired the way Mr. May “attacked life.”
“He was not a spectator,” he said.“He threw himself into everything, whether it was tennis at age 85 or skiing into his 80s or throwing himself into the affairs of his community.”
One of Mr. May’s greatest passions in life was tennis, a sport he played for nearly seven decades and accumulated a variety of awards and accolades. During his college years at University of North Carolina, his team finished third in the nation in 1948.
Mr. May was also ranked nationally with the United States Tennis Association and continued to play in a variety of tournaments, including the Times/Review’s Bob Wall Memorial Tennis Tournament. In 2011, Mr. May was honored by the Long Island Division of the Eastern Division of the United States Tennis Association as the outstanding player for men’s singles 80 and above.
“I enjoy the physical exercise,” Mr. May told The Suffolk Times after receiving the award. “I enjoy the beauty of tennis. I enjoy the competition and I enjoy the fact you can learn new things every time you play.”
Eileen Walker, Mr. May’s longtime mixed-doubles partner, said they practiced together every Sunday and often made up their own drills to improve their games.
“John was an amazing player and I didn’t let up — he didn’t want me to,” Ms. Walker said. “He gave everything that he had to that game and he helped better me as a result.”
Beyond the court, Mr. May was special to his teammate — equal parts mentor and friend.
“He was a truly amazing man,” Ms. Walker said as she fought back tears. “He was inspirational to me. I just hope I can live my life like he did. He gave everything he had for life and for people.
“He was so humble and so positive.”
One fond memory for Paul, who also plays tennis, was when his father came out to the court one day to help him prepare for a match. Once Mr. May left the court, Paul said he started to hear whispers.
“I heard two of the guys I hit with say, ‘I think that’s John May!’ as if it was Tiger Woods,” Paul said. “He’s a legend around here.”
Marilyn felt her father “lived a principled life,” and she said one of his guiding mantras was a line from George Bernard Shaw:
“You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’”
Visiting hours will be held Wednesday, Aug. 26, and Thursday, Aug. 27, at DeFriest Grattan Funeral Home in Southold from 3 to 7 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at Saint Mary’s Church, 110 Bryant Ave., Roslyn, NY, on Friday, Aug. 28, at 11 a.m. It will be celebrated by Fr. Thomas Murray, pastor of St. Therese in Montauk and former pastor at St. Agnes, Greenport. Donations may be made to the May Foundation, 17638 Trenton Drive, Castro Valley, CA 94546.