Dr. Samuel T. May



Dr. Samuel T. May

Biographical Text

Samuel Thomas May was born on a farm near Oakwood, Ohio, in a log cabin on July 6, 1866. His father was of English and German ancestry, and his mother was born in Ireland. As an American patriot, his great-grandfather had fought in the American Revolution. Mr. May's grandfather, Jacob May, has served in the army during the War of 1812, receiving a land grant in compensation, and had moved the family from near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Ohio. Samuel was the sixth child in a family with ten children.

While he was still quite young, the family moved to Iowa, near Marengo. The journey was made in two covered wagons, and it took over four weeks to make the trip. His father continued farming, became quite prosperous, and earned local respect, as evidenced by the fact that he held a number of local elective positions.

May attended a local rural school during the winters, and helped with the farm work during the summer. As he grew older, he attended Tilford Academy ("Academy" was the name generally given to high schools of the era), about 20 miles from his home, during the winters. "This distance he frequently walked after school on Fridays to get his washing done. His father would usually take him part way back on Sundays.” He graduated from the school at the age of 22, in 1888. The academy had prepared him to teach in Iowa's rural schools.

All seven of his sisters were teachers, and when at home, it was his duty to deliver them to their schools and home again on weekends. At that time he thought the girls got the best of deals especially when they had chicken for dinner. Mr. May declared that they only left him the neck. Nevertheless, he has proved one can get his growth on chicken necks.

His teaching positions allowed him to work during the school months and attend the University of Iowa at Iowa City during the summers. In 1893, he received the Bachelor of Philosophy from that institution. After that he served as a principal of schools in Victor, Iowa and Clarion, Iowa, positions he held until 1901, when he enrolled in the University of Illinois College of Law.

May graduated with a law degree in 1904, but found he preferred teaching to lawyering, and took the position of Superintendent of Schools at Hawarden, Iowa. He acted in that capacity until 1909 when he moved to Madison, South Dakota after accepting the superintendency of schools in that city. He remained there until he took the position as president of Dickinson Normal School in 1918.

May was a large, powerful man and his voice matched his size. He was deeply religious, and very kind. Children were a special favorite of his. Belsheim relates that a young Dickinson boy and his brother would make it a point to be at the entrance to the Elks Building about the time they thought Dr. May would be leaving. They would greet him, and Dr. May, enjoying their friendliness, would reward them with a dime. Students at the school felt that "there were no troubles after you had talked with Mr. May," and that "no one could greet you as warmly as he."

Dr. May was devoted to his profession, spending long hours at his tasks. Belsheim says that probably some of the faculty members felt he demanded too much of them, but that they also believed he demanded no more of them than he did of himself. In interviews Belsheim conducted with faculty members who had worked under Dr. May, the expression of respect was always preeminent. Nell Robinson, who worked at the college for 28 years until her retirement in 1953, said "He was a splendid gentleman. Some called him a tyrant, but he was not undemocratic in that he would consult the faculty. He was highly trained, an honorable gentleman. He was a hard worker and kept terrifically long hours—he was in his office by 3 or shortly after every morning. His life morally, was most exemplary. I never worked so hard in my life. I frequently had to go to bed right after supper, I was so tired. I think he literally killed himself with work."

Harry Wienbergen, another teacher who knew Dr. May, commented that May was "a very large man, very religious; brilliant. He ran the school with an iron hand, but he was fair to all if they did their work. He was the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night."

Dr. May had great physical strength. In a letter to Belsheim, Dr. May's son, Don, told of his father engaging in weight lifting contests with black smiths and draymen after he had departed from the physical activity of the farm. He also had great skill in tracing genealogical histories, and was a skilled cabinetmaker. The son also commented that Dr. May’s “contribution to the military efforts of the nation was not in uniform, but in a very full schedule of speaking engagements to sell Liberty Bonds during World War I. In this endeavor, as thruout [sic] his life, his ability to speak German stood him in good stead.

Dr. May was an educator during an era when the Superintendent of Schools or the principal was addressed as “Professor” by all. He often wore a long black frock coat. Harold Murphy, who served under May from 1927 to 1929, said he was always at ease with Dr. May. “He was completely involved in his work. Sometimes his feet would bother him and in the office he would take off his shoes and work in slippers. One time he made a Lincoln Day address in his slippers, as he forgot to change them when he left the office.”

In 1891, May married the daughter of a Civil War veteran, Martha Roach. The couple had three sons and a daughter: Mary, Maxwell, Donald, and Hallam. Dr. Belsheim lists only these three sons, but when announcing May's appointment, The Recorder-Post of August 10, 1918, on its front page story, says: "His family consists of wife, three sons and one daughter. Two of his sons are already in the service of Uncle Sam, and the third, 17 years of age, has been recommended for appointment to the Annapolis Naval Academy. The daughter is 9 years old." The Recorder-Post of October 5, 1918, on page 8, notes that "Mrs. S. T. May, daughter, Mary, and son, Hallam, arrived via auto on Monday to make their home here." On December 28 of that year, the following item was found on page 2: "Pres. and Mrs. S. T. May, son Donald, and daughter Mary, went out Christmas morning to the beautiful farm home of Mr. May's sister, Mrs. D. M. Hart, northwest of New England, to visit for several days." On April 5, 1919, it was noted on page 8 of the same paper that: President S. T. May of the Normal school, delivered the memorial address in the Daglum church for the fallen soldier boys of that community on Sunday. He was accompanied by his wife, son and daughter, and they were entertained as guests at the home of Mr. May's sister, Mrs. D. M. Hart, who resides in that community, for the weekend. Mary is listed in the 1920 census as "daughter, age 11," but was not listed in the 1925 census. (North Dakota conducted a mid-decade count.) Mrs. May's obituary says "She was married to Samuel T. May December 28,1881, at Toledo, Iowa. Three children were born to them.... Mrs. May was preceded in death by her husband and one grandchild." Dr. May's obituary makes no mention of a daughter.

A search of North Dakota deaths from 1920 to 1931 does not list a "Mary May." Cemetery records in Dickinson show that both Mr. and Mrs. May are buried there, but there is no "Mary May." What happened to Mary?

Dr. May became ill during the winter of 1928-29, with what was called a series of "blood infections." After an absence from the college of several weeks, he returned to work, but shortly thereafter he became ill again, and was taken to Rochester, Minnesota, to the Mayo Clinic. While there, it was determined that surgery was necessary, and he seemed to have withstood the trauma well. However, he unexpectedly died on April 19, 1929. On Monday, April 22, his body was brought to the campus and lay in state in the auditorium in what was then known as the Main Building. An honor guard of faculty, students and members of the Masonic Order stood by the casket while hundreds of people came to pay their respects.

The funeral on Tuesday, April 23, was also held in the auditorium, with faculty members serving as pallbearers. On Sunday, April 28, a Memorial service was held for Dr. May, which was attended by Governor Shafer and attended by the presidents of the various state colleges and other administrators. Students and faculty had requested that the Main Building be named in May's honor, and the Board of Administration granted the request.

On August 1, 1929, the 11th anniversary of May's arrival in Dickinson the dedication was held and a Board member unveiled the tablet by the main entrance which proclaims that this is "Samuel T. May Hall." The choice of Samuel May to serve as the first president of the Dickinson Normal School was fortuitous indeed. The Dickinson Press of April 26, 1929, described May as "a great educator, a foremost citizen and a prince among men. ... No man ever gave more of himself."

Dr. May's unofficial slogan for the school he headed was "Enter to learn, depart to serve." This was a motto which it would seem he had followed all the days of his life and one which epitomized his work with "The College on The Hill."



“Dr. Samuel T. May ,” Dickinson State University Archive, accessed May 26, 2024, https://www.dsuarchive.com/items/show/27.