November/December 2022 Issue
Also in this issue: Making a Difference | Remembering Mike May | Ikigai | Mike's Gal | A Municipal Law Tour de Force
Remembering our Colleague - Mike May
Longtime Madison city attorney Mike May was remembered for his deep love of all things Madison, sharp legal mind, dedication to family and playful sense of humor.
May, 68, died early October 3, 2022 from complications of pancreatitis, his wife, Briony Foy, said.
“Family, the people, the culture, the sports, the law,” Foy said when asked what it was that kept him in the city of his birth. “The support I have received from family, friends, the city and the legal community during his illness has been overwhelming.”
Among his favorite phrases was “I love the law,” she said.
“Mike May had a great impact on the Madison community as a lawyer and during his long tenure as city attorney,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said. “His colleagues and the city benefitted from his wise and steady leadership and mentorship. He helped to shape the legal careers and skills of countless attorneys, and the principles he championed continue to have an influence on the City Attorney’s Office.
Born at St. Mary’s Hospital, May never lived more than 25 miles from his hometown, his obituary says. He grew up in Monona, and from a early age, he wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. In 1968, at age 14, he left home to live and study at Holy Name Seminary. He was class valedictorian in 1972 and won a National Merit Scholarship that he used to attend UW-Madison.
May earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from the university in 1975. After working for a year, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School, graduating cum laude in 1979. He was a member of both the Wisconsin Law Review, and the Wisconsin Law Revue, a rag-tag group of law students that performed risqué skits.
His law career spanned 43 years. He was an associate, partner, and then managing partner at Boardman, Suhr, Curry and Field. After 25 years in private practice, then-Mayor Dave Cieslewicz appointed May city attorney in 2004, a position to which he would be reappointed under mayors Paul Soglin and Rhodes-Conway. He retired from the city in 2020.
“Mike May combined a keen understanding of the law with a sense of fundamental fairness and decency,” Cieslewicz said. “He told me what I could and couldn’t do under the law, but he also had a way of letting me know what might be legal but unwise. He was universally respected among anyone who had contact with city government.
“Most importantly for me, on a personal level, he was fun,” Cieslewicz said, recalling the time he joined the mayor and some friends at a Badgers basketball game wearing red-and-white striped overalls and a red beret.
“’That’s our new city attorney,’ I told my friends,” Cieslewicz said. “’Very distinguished legal scholar. Really.’”
One of May’s most famous opinions concerned whether a proposed city sign rule might ban the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. “You know, I don’t know,” May said, effectively killing the proposal.
“Mike was recognized around the state and the country as a leader in municipal law, and his outgoing personality and great sense of humor built relationships that not only benefitted the city but also enriched the experiences of those he interacted with,” said May’s successor as city attorney, Michael Haas.
Ald. Mike Verveer, the City Council’s longestserving member, said May was able to deliver keen legal advice while maintaining his sense of humor, even in tense moments. “He was just a special person to be around,” Verveer said. “It’s shocking to lose him this young.”
“Mike staffed over 360 City Council meetings during his tenure, which equates to a little over one year of his life in council chambers, and would regularly mark Halloween by attending meetings in a wizard costume,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We will all miss not only his expertise and energy but also his optimism and humor.”
May ended his legal career at Boardman Clark, the successor of Boardman, Suhr, Curry and Field, as senior counsel to the firm.
“He’s probably regarded around the state as one of the finest attorneys in the municipal field,” said his co-worker and friend Steve Zach, of Boardman Clark, which “lent him to the city for 16 years.”
A spiritual man, May joined the First Unitarian Society of Madison, serving as president of the congregation from 1991 to 1995. He also served on many committees, on Unitarian organizations in the Midwest and as the head of the FUS Preservation Committee for the Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Meeting House. He later served on the board and as president of the Friends of the Meeting House.
He was active in the legal community, serving on several boards or divisions of the State Bar of Wisconsin. He spent many years on the Board of Visitors of the University of Wisconsin Law School and was a Fellow of the Wisconsin Law Foundation. He was a member of Downtown Madison Rotary, where he served on the board of directors. He also served on the board and was president of the Downtown Rotary Foundation. He was sponsor of a popular Rotary Book Club, and a member of Rotary’s Lew Harned Society.
As a fan of University of Wisconsin sports, May held football, men’s hockey and women’s hockey season tickets for years. He attended more than 20 Wisconsin bowl games, traveled for Badger rivalry games and hockey’s Frozen Four.
May was also known for playfulness. For years, he hosted a party to celebrate the resignation of President Richard Nixon, asking guests to toast “the demise of our favorite unindicted co-conspirator.” He was quick with a story, a joke and to hoist a glass of scotch, his obituary says.
His sister, Carol, said his favorite on the list of all the things he loved about Madison — family, the law, the Wisconsin Badgers — could change depending on how each was doing, she quipped.
“He loved this city incredibly,” she said.
May and Foy were married 21 years. May leaves behind three grown children and two granddaughters.
- Article by Dean Mosiman for the Wisconsin State Journal, October 4, 2022
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