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Tommy May: An Arkansas inspiration

It was one of the most memorable moments in American sports.

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig, the New York Yankee known as the Iron Horse, stepped to the microphone at Yankee Stadium.

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got,” said Gehrig, who was just 36. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”

During the noon hour Wednesday, several hundred Arkansans gathered at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock to hear from Arkansas’ own Iron Horse.

Tommy May, the Simmons Bank chairman from Pine Bluff, had made the short trip to the capital city for a talk titled “A Journey with Many Crossroads.”

It was standing room only in the old depot that now houses the school. Bankers in expensive suits sat by people in casual clothes. The thing they all had in common was the respect they have for May. They gave him a standing ovation when his wheelchair was rolled to the podium at the start of the address, and they gave him another standing ovation 45 minutes later when he concluded his remarks.

“A Journey with Many Crossroads.”

A significant crossroad for May came in September 2005. A distance runner (he completed a marathon in 1989), May noticed that his running had slowed and his feet felt heavy.

Following months of tests, he was diagnosed with what’s commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The official name is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The degenerative disease is progressive and fatal. There’s no known cure. Many patients die within two to three years.

May, his voice hoarse from recent surgery, matter of factly noted that about 20,000 people in this country have ALS. He said almost 5,000 per year are added to the rolls and another 5,000 “finish their journey” each year.

Gehrig talked about being “lucky.” May echoed those sentiments. He came across as a man thankful for the things that have occurred during his 65 years on this earth. He quoted from the Bible, talked about the strength of his faith and referred simply to “my medical challenge.”

The room was silent as he talked, broken only by occasional laughter as May displayed his trademark sense of humor.

He noted the large number of bankers in attendance and said: “If I knew they were going to be here, I would be out calling on their customers.”

He said people had given up their lunch hour to hear “an Arkansas banker, nearing retirement, just out of surgery who can hardly talk.”

May explained that his recent surgery was designed to help his breathing and was the same type of surgery the late actor Christopher Reeve once had. Reeve became a quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse in May 1995 during an equestrian competition in Virginia. He died in October 2004.

In attendance at May’s talk was his neurologist, Dr. Stacy Rudnicki of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

In November 2008, 150 people had turned out at UAMS for the dedication of the J. Thomas May Center for ALS Research.

“I’ll never forget when I called him after hearing about the diagnosis,” Frank Broyles, the legendary former University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director, said that day. “What he said was ‘we’re going to stay positive. We’re going to keep working.’ He will always be an inspiration to me.”

May indeed has remained positive. And he has kept working at the bank as the disease has progressed and he has gone from using a cane to a walker to a wheelchair.

May was born in December 1946 in Prescott and raised in El Dorado. He described his father, a lawyer named Buck May, as “tough.”

May was an excellent athlete at El Dorado who went to college at the University of Arkansas.

“As an adolescent, if trouble was to be found, I found it,” he said.

His father was unhappy with his grades following two years of college and pulled him out of school to work on a pipeline in the pine woods of south Arkansas “where the mosquitoes were as big as sparrows.”

May joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967 and was sent to Vietnam, where he was assigned to psychological operations. After his discharge from the Marines, he returned to college in Fayetteville, determined to do better this time around.

May received his bachelor’s degree in 1971 and his master’s of business administration degree in 1972. The chief executive officer of the First National Bank of Commerce in New Orleans was an Arkansas native and came to the Fayetteville campus for interviews. He was impressed with May and offered him a job. May accepted his offer and moved to south Louisiana.

May said there were some tough times as he went through a divorce, dealt with the death of his mother and spent five years as a bachelor. A turning point came when he married his current whife, who had children ages 7 and 5 at the time.

May returned to El Dorado in 1976 to work for Exchange Bank. Upon the formation of the holding company Exchange Bancshares Inc. in 1981, he was elected president and CEO.

In 1987, Arkansas business legend Louis Ramsay convinced May to come to Simmons.

“I’ve always loved banking,” May said two years ago when he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. “Simmons was special. I had the opportunity to be with people who had the highest integrity. I wanted to prove that I could be successful at a higher level so it was an easy transition for me.”

Under May’s leadership, Simmons has become not just a statewide but a regional powerhouse in the banking industry. When he moved to Pine Bluff in 1987, Simmons had assets of $527 million. It now has more than $3 billion in assets and also gained national recognition as a provider of credit card services.

May served from 1993-2003 on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees and remains a huge fan of the Razorback football and basketball teams (“I want to be around for the national championship,” he said of the football team).

In 2007, May received the University of Arkansas Chancellor’s Medal and the Walton College of Business’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

May urged those in attendance Wednesday to “eliminate the personal pronoun ‘I’ and focus on ‘we.’ The real fun begins when we find ways to help others help themselves. … Things don’t just happen. People make them happen.”

He admitted that the days following his ALS diagnosis were filled with “fear, anxiety and disbelief.”

He added, however, that his faith led to a “sense of peace that remains with me today. … Sometimes we forget the power of our faith until we have a crisis. Life is uncertain and has many twists and turns. At best, life is fragile.”

He talked about the joy of being a grandfather and said: “I believe the Lord has many things left for me to do.”

He said two of his inspirations in life were the late building contractor Bill Clark of Little Rock, with whom he served on the UA Board of Trustees, and the late KATV sports director Paul Eells.

“God fully expects us to help others,” May said. “Those two men helped others, and they did it for all the right reasons.”

Just as Clark and Eells were inspirations for May, the Pine Bluff banker is an inspiration today for thousands of Arkansans.

“We all have our challenges,” he said. “Mine is just a bit more definitive. I choose to get up each morning with a positive attitude. … Every day is a good day, and every day we ought to think about what we can do to help others.”

For the Clinton School students in attendance, May had this piece of advice: “Do all you can do to enjoy every minute of your life, live out your dreams.”

And for the older members of the audience, there was this: “Lead by example in bad times as well as good.”

He has set the example for us all.

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