The first thing you have to know about Willie May is he was one of the most talented multi-sport athletes in Illinois high school history. In an era that also featured Bloom's Leroy Jackson and Homer Thurman and Thornton's Paul Jackson, Willie gave Blue Island its own sense of pride.
Willie was 6-foot-3 with long legs and great leaping ability. He was an all-conference end on an unbeaten football team, an all-conference center on a basketball team that battled perennial powers Thornton and Bloom in the South Suburban League and led Blue Island to the state track and field championship in 1955.
Watching Willie run the high and low hurdles during a track meet was like watching Mickey Mantle take batting practice. That's when the words "awe" and "awesome" were invented. You were in "awe" of his "awesome" achievements. And he literally took it all in stride.
I was a freshman baseball player at Blue Island in those days. During meets on the adjacent track, baseball practice stopped when it came time for Willie to compete -- in the high hurdles, low hurdles and 880-yard relay. "The gun is up. Willie's gonna run," someone would yell. We'd all stop whatever we were doing and watch."
In 1955, Blue Island (now Eisenhower) sent four runners to the state finals in Champaign, scored 18 points to New Trier's 14 13 and won the state title. It was a monumental achievement. La Grange had won the previous three state titles and five of the last seven. Phillips had won two. And Bloom won the next four in a row.
But Blue Island prevailed as Willie won the 120-yard high hurdles in 14.5 seconds and the 180-yard low hurdles in 19.5. He also ran the third leg on the winning 880-yard relay in 1:29.8 with Ron Helberg, Paul Fuller and Robert Rechord. Rechord finished third in the 220-yard dash for the final three points.
Willie was all legs. He didn't leap over the hurdles, he glided over them. Other hurdlers marveled at his technique but couldn't match it. In the relay, if Helberg or Fuller hadn't already given Blue Island a lead, Willie would sweep around the corner and gobble up huge chunks of cinders with his long stride. Rechord, the anchor, never had to come from behind.
Those memories were brought to mind on Wednesday night when Evanston athletic director Chris Livatino called to deliver the sad news: Willie May had died. He had succumbed to a rare blood disease, amyloidosis. He was 75.
"What will always define Coach May to me," Livatino told reporter Bill Smith of Evanston Now, "was the grace, humility and strength with which he carried himself and his teams at Evanston. In a word, he was nobility. While soft-spoken, the power of his raspy voice inspired and elevated his student-athletes on and off the oval to great heights in track, in school and, most importantly, in life."
May served at Evanston as a physical education teacher, track and field coach and athletic director for more than 40 years. He retired as athletic director and teacher in 2000 and as head track coach in 2006. He continued to serve as assistant track coach and was looking forward to the start of his 45th season. Through it all, he was a mentor to one and all.
"Whether it was a story from another era or just the perfect quote, Coach May knew how to advise a coach on how to handle a situation without having to tell the coach what to do," Livatino said. "He put his trust in your decision and you made sure you did not disappoint. I will miss seeing his slow, steady stride around the fieldhouse track and I will miss his warm smile and confidence in the athletic office."
Born in Alabama in 1936, May earned a football scholarship to Colorado after graduating from Blue Island, then transferred to Indiana, played one season of football as a two-way end in a single platoon system, then realized his future was in track. He won seven Big 10 championships in the hurdles from 1957 to 1959. In 1960, at the Olympics in Rome, he finished second to Lee Calhoun in the 110-meter hurdles in a photo-finish race that May always insisted that he had won. In 1963, he won another silver medal in the Pan American Games.
His former teammate at Blue Island, Ron Helberg, then head track and field coach at Evanston, persuaded May to join his staff in 1967. Helberg won state titles in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974 before moving on to Hoffman Estates and Glenbrook South.
May became head track and field coach at Evanston in 1975 and guided the Wildkits to 26 conference titles, including 24 in a row from 1976 to 1999, and the 1979 state title. His teams also were second in 1991 and 1994 and third in 1989 and 1993.
He also produced more than 50 medalists, including Bob McGee, who won 100, high hurdles and low hurdles and ran on the winning mile relay to lead Evanston to the 1979 state title.
In 1983, he became athletic director at Evanston, serving until 2000. He was inducted into the Indiana University Athletic Hall of Fame I 2000, the Illinois Track and Cross-Country Coaches Association's Hall of Fame I 2007 and the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. He also was named the most outstanding athlete in the history of Blue Island Community High School.
As a freshman at Blue Island, May played baseball in the spring. But he had trouble hitting Wyman Carey, a hard-throwing lefty who was signed by the Detroit Tigers. So he was "strongly persuaded" to switch to track as a sophomore.
As it turned out, 1995 was a magical year. But May didn't see it coming. Neither did anyone else. Coach Olin Driver's track team didn't win a single meet during the entire season until the state finals. Carroll Nichols was a member of the relay but he was injured and Fuller, a former pole vaulter, replaced him. Rechord sprained an ankle and couldn't run for two weeks.
"We were so uninformed and unsophisticated about what was going on," said May in an interview in 1999. "When we went into the state meet, we never had any idea that we were a contender for the championship."
When they arrived in Champaign, Blue Island was represented by four athletes and five coaches. Oak Park and New Trier were favored to win the team title. But Oak Park didn't advance a single qualifier to the finals. All of a sudden, Blue Island was in the mix.
May won the high hurdles. In the 880 relay, he was matched against Phillips' John Lattimore, who went on to win the 220 in 1956.
"We were down," May recalled. "I knew I had to really go. I gave Rechord a half-step lead. (Phillips') Billy Martin took the lead back, then Bobby took it back on the last turn. Afterward, I had to sit down. I was shot. It was the only time I didn't think I could come back from the 880 relay to run the low hurdles. I had less than 10 minutes to rest."
Martin, who won the lows in a then-state record time of 18.9 seconds in 1956, had been timed in 19.2 in Friday's prelims. But he had anchored Phillips' 880 relay. How much did he have left?
"When the gun went off, I am racing Martin, not worrying about anyone else," May said. "But I don't see Martin. I see (New Trier's) Dick Fisk. He is stealing the race. He is the man to beat, not Martin (who finished last).
I found something somewhere and was able to beat him. It was the only time I doubted I could do it."
Afterward, someone informed May that Blue Island had clinched the team championship.
"The impact didn't hit me until the next day, what we had done, that it was a big deal, until I read it in the newspaper," May said. "We didn't have a big celebration on the track, just a few pictures. We didn't know it was only the second state title our school had ever won (and still is). Then it dawned on me that we had done something pretty incredible."
Rechord put it all in perspective. "I remember Willie Mays was starring in baseball in those days and we had Willie May. It was really a good feeling to be on top of the world," he said.