Alumni Spotlight - Jim May
By Jamie Kornegay
"No kid has any idea what the future holds or how wide the horizon and breadth of experience," says Jim May, who graduated from Grenada High School in 1967. "You think when I was a kid I ever imagined I'd be the single guy responsible for a company's multi-million dollar lawsuits? That I'd be the man driving the ship?"
He means that literally. He was the man driving the ship — a naval warship — through the Pacific Ocean four years after leaving Grenada.
May didn't move to Grenada until his freshman year of high school, though he says, "It's always felt like home to me, even though I only lived there four years."
The Mays moved around a lot but stayed put when they came to Grenada. His parents built a house, one of the first in the Thimmes neighborhood, and
James worked downtown after school at Spotless Cleaners. "I learned a lot about small-town business," he says. "I got to know a lot of business people, the shakers and movers of Grenada."
After work he'd walk down to the phone company, where his father was the manager of plant operations. This was around the time of the draft, when half the male population was subject to being shipped off to Vietnam. "My father was in World War II and the Pacific, a major in the National Guard," says May. "He didn't want me in a foxhole in Vietnam."
May graduated and went to the University of Mississippi on a Navy ROTC scholarship, which precluded his being drafted. He studied to be an officer and earned a degree in mathematics, but the war had his number all along.
The spring of 1971 was one of the most eventful times in his life. May graduated from Ole Miss and entered the Navy as a commissioned officer one week, and married a Grenada girl, Jan Biddy, the next weekend. Two weeks later he reported for duty at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
May was designated the ship's navigator when they set out for Vietnam. "All of the sudden I went from never having been at sea to a naval ship navigator at the ripe old age of 22."
This was pre-GPS, and radar was unavailable in the middle of the Pacific. They navigated by sextant, "shooting stars," or measuring the distance between celestial objects and the horizon. May recorded the angles and read nautical charts to calculate their position. He navigated through crowded straits and harbors. It was all stuff he'd learned to do in his ROTC classes at Ole Miss but never thought he'd actually have to use.
After a two-and-a-half week sea voyage, he arrived in Vietnam and was selected to navigate a six-ship squadron north above the DMZ, making strikes on North Vietnamese targets. They were shot at every night and suffered damage and casualties. He lost friends. He also made friends he'd have for life.
"I only remember the good times now," says May.
Six years later, May left the military for the prestigious University of Virginia School of Law, founded by Thomas Jefferson. "Oddly enough, a math degree turned out to be a good basis for law school from a logical standpoint," says May. "They value that sort of disciplined thinking."
He earned his law degree and took advantage of the school's excellent placement office to interview with firms all over the country. He wanted to stay in the south and took an offer from one of Alabama's largest firms, Bradley Arant Rose & White. He moved to Birmingham and handled federal cases in labor and employment law, representing a wide, diverse group of clients from corporations and coal miners to banks and manufacturing facilities. "Between Congress and crazy folks, there was a constant stream of legal matters to deal with," he says.
May went on to become a partner in the firm and then president of the labor section of the Alabama State Bar. After nearly thirty years, he was offered the chance to join three partners and open a new branch of the major national firm Little Mendelson, specialists in labor and employment law. He opened the office, made sure it was up and running smoothly, and then bowed out of the legal profession in 2012.
Today, he jokes, "I mostly play tennis on the professional senior circuit." He also enjoys visiting his nine granddaughters with his current wife, Bobbi May, a Biloxi native. They've been married 25 years.
Looking back, May can trace his success to an opportunity he had while a student at Grenada High. He calls it "the class that changed my life."
It was Mrs. McAdory's eleventh-grade English class. "We hated the work, and she wasn't particularly warm and fuzzy," he recalls. "But she was responsible for what success I've had in life. Because she taught me how to write."
One of their big writing assignments was such a revelation that he used the lesson throughout his career to write legal briefs. It taught him how to structure paragraphs and sentences, how to use words sparingly and effectively. At Ole Miss, he was called aside by a professor and informed that he was an exceptional writer. It helped him tremendously in legal-writing classes at UVA, and it served him well in the military, where he performed the duties of ship secretary and personnel officer in port, preparing correspondence and communication.
Reflecting on humble beginnings and fortunate opportunities, May considered what advice he would give current students at Grenada School District. "If you pay attention to the day-to-day and learn to do the best you can, put a little work in everyday, it's amazing what can happen."