A Man Who Made It Happen

A Man Who Made It Happen

The Last Word with Vice President Emeritus Jerry A. May

By Danny McAlindon (AB ’16)
Photography by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography

For nearly 30 years, he quietly raised billions for the University of Michigan. Throughout his tenure, donors contributed more than $10 billion to U-M across four capital campaigns. With the $5.2 billion Victors for Michigan campaign coming to a close, he chose this auspicious moment to go out on top.

Amid the campaign celebrations, the retirement parties, and the solemn farewells with U-M’s top benefactors, May hosted Leaders & Best for one last chat. We talked about his career, the friends he made along the way, and what it means to say goodbye to Michigan. This is the story of U-M’s $10 billion man and his final days in Ann Arbor.


It’s 5 p.m. on a Friday night, and I’m drinking a craft beer next to Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii. You can find Nydia in the Apse at the U-M Museum of Art, brought to life tonight by the music of a string trio from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Guests in maize ties and blue blouses mingle beneath the 40-foot skylight, intermixed with the marble statues, the paintings of Colonial American landscapes, and the soft white sheen of one of U-M’s most iconic spaces. A stoic-looking bust of George Washington keeps a watchful eye on the evening’s events. At the center of the room, a miniature man made of fondant sits beneath a buttercream Block M. He wears a tiny seersucker blazer, a modest grin on his face.

This is the retirement party for one of U-M’s most beloved characters, Vice President for Development Emeritus Jerry A. May (School of Education ’78). It is an extravagant but tasteful farewell to the most prolific fundraiser in U-M history.

Jerry wowed by retirement cake
May lays eyes on his retirement cake in the Apse. The evening’s guest list read like a Who’s Who of U-M brass and benefactors. Speakers included U-M President Mark Schlissel and Ford CEO Jim Hackett (BGS ’77).

I recognize most of the faces around the room from the photos that decorate May’s office. That man gave $10 million to the Ross School. That couple established one of U-M’s largest scholarship cohorts. Another couple was instrumental in funding a new building for the School of Nursing. Among this sea of U-M’s elite and the development officers who steward them, May is bashfully admiring the cake that bears his likeness. For the past hour, he has been swarmed with handshakes, hugs, and congratulations. Soon, he’ll take to the microphone and bid his final farewell to the group that has long known him as a mentor, a confidant, and a beloved friend.

When he finally appears on stage, May’s remarks read like a humbled acceptance speech; he spends most of his time listing off the names of donors, colleagues, and family members. He spends an inordinate amount of energy congratulating others on a night meant to celebrate his success. Were it another person at the microphone, the long list of names may have felt excessive. In May’s case, it is simply endearing, and emblematic of what has made him so successful. As his time at the microphone winds down, the moment begins to feel heavy, in the way a moment does when it marks a period of massive transition. Not the turning of a page, but the closing of an entire volume.


In Ann Arbor, this is as close as a man could get to riding off into the sunset. How could it end any other way?

He rounds out the talk with more words of gratitude for his family, his friends, his colleagues, his career. “It’s been really fun,” he concludes, “to be in the room where it happens!”

Thunderous applause. A standing ovation. Students take to the stage to lead the crowd in a rousing rendition of “The Victors.” In Ann Arbor, this is as close as a man could get to riding off into the sunset. How could it end any other way?

As the applause dies down and the party kicks back up, I bid Nydia adieu and head for the door, emerging into a rainy December night on Central Campus. Take a walk like this on any one of U-M’s campuses, and you’ll have an idea of why tonight was so special.

We don’t often stop to wonder how a place like this comes to be. We naturally assume that the university’s growth in size, excellence, and diversity is a natural and automatic progression. The glory, power, and influence of Michigan proliferating on a predestined track for bigger, better, and brighter achievement—always. Unless we notice their name on a campus monument, we may not often consider the philanthropists who make such a place possible. Even more rare is an appreciation or even awareness of the men and women who broker relationships between those philanthropists and the university.

May’s closing line—a quote from Hamilton: An American Musical—is strikingly apropos. Out of all of its award-winning lyrics, it’s no mystery why these resonated with him the most: “No one really knows how the game is played / The art of the trade / How the sausage gets made / We just assume that it happens / But no one else is in / The room where it happens.”

For almost his entire career, May stood at the center of those rooms. Smiling, shaking hands, and singing the gospel of this Michigan of ours. At journey’s end, another line from Hamilton best describes his legacy: “God help and forgive me. I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.”

May introduces son and granddaughter
May introduces Jim Hackett (BGS ’77) to his son, Elliot May, and granddaughter, Bexley May. At the conclusion of his remarks later in the evening, Hackett announced a $50,000 gift to U-M in May’s honor.

The day before the retirement party, I meet resident U-M photographer Austin Thomason outside of May’s office on the ninth floor of Wolverine Tower. The room reads like a history of fundraising at U-M and a love letter to the university rolled into one. His bookshelves are packed with volumes of fundraising fundamentals; commemorative books celebrating facilities, people, and programs at U-M; and dozens of photos. They’re of his family, or of the major U-M donors who know him as a dear friend.

When May finally arrives, he is smiling and carrying a box of cookies, all of them bearing his likeness. “Isn’t that just hysterical? The Regents got these for me,” he says. “They really do look like me! Maybe not the hair.” He insists that Austin and I take a couple. 

This is how he usually enters a room. There’s a certain breeziness to his arrival, a laid-back cool suggesting that, at any given moment, he’s coming from somewhere more important or interesting than where he is now. And he probably is, but the remarkable thing about May is that he would never let you know it. Regardless of who he’s speaking to, he possesses the enchanting ability to make them feel like they’re the only person in the room. He’s East Coast cool mixed with Midwestern humility, reading a lot like a man who belongs on the stage of a Hollywood awards ceremony, wringing his hands and thanking everybody who made it all possible. Imagine the alluring charm of Jeff Goldblum and the quiet, unassuming wisdom of Bryan Cranston. Package it in a Brooks Brothers suit with a gold Block M lapel pin. That’s Jerry May.

When you’re in his presence, he is attentive, focused, and always smiling. His face is decorated with smile lines, especially at the corners of his eyes, which settle on you in conversation and rarely stray when you speak. Those lines tell the story of four decades in fundraising. After 40 years of building relationships, touting the merits of higher education, and repeatedly brokering multimillion-dollar donations as U-M’s premier ambassador, it remains his most natural inclination to smile. But not in the same way that a salesman smiles; the gesture never feels manufactured, never artificial or insincere. There is an authentic warmth that underlies his every meeting, a natural graciousness that extends to everybody he meets.

In a world of thousands of academic institutions, many of them now staffed with hundreds of development professionals, those characteristics brought May to the very top of his field. When he was in the U-M Higher Education doctoral program, he originally wanted to be a lobbyist. But a job offer in annual giving started him on a different path. “My wife, Deb, worked in student affairs, and I thought, ‘Well, I ought to try something different. How about this development thing?’” He grins. “Magical.”

Magic isn’t a far cry from the truth in describing his career. Every comprehensive campaign in which he took part soared past its fundraising goal. When May was senior associate director of the $150 million Campaign for Michigan, the university eclipsed $160 million. He later became director of principal gifts and was responsible for the nucleus fund of The Billion-Dollar Campaign for Michigan, the first ever billion-dollar campaign undertaken by a public university. That campaign raised $1.4 billion. (At this point, there’s a brief, 10-year period when May was busy leading Ohio State University to its first billion-dollar campaign. With a twinkle in his eye, he describes this as “a part of his checkered past.”) When he returned to Ann Arbor to take up the mantle of vice president for development, he launched the Michigan Difference campaign with a $2.5 billion goal. It reached $3.2 billion. If you’ve visited almost any other page on this website, you’ll already know that his swan song, the Victors for Michigan campaign, has been his greatest triumph of all.

The man never forgets a face. He never struggles for a name. He alarms people with how readily he recalls things about them.

So what’s made him so successful? People say that he has an almost eidetic memory for people, their stories, their children’s stories, and their children’s children’s stories. The man never forgets a face. He never struggles for a name. He alarms people with how readily he recalls things about them. Regulars at U-M events will joke about the Rolodex of names he keeps in his head, and how quickly you can see those names coming to him when he enters a room. It’s a signature part of his charm. It comes so naturally to him because he genuinely adores people, their passions, and their capacity for selflessness.

“As soon as I got into fundraising, I thought, ‘This is a perfect fit for me,’” he says. “I can remember the names. I can build the relationships. I get to look at the big picture of higher education. I’m learning more about the funding of higher education. But the relationship building is everything to me. And it’s such a perfect fit for me. Right away, I thought—I want to be vice president for development.”

It’s been a storied career, and Jerry May can certainly tell a story. But when he does, you’ll notice that it’s almost never about him. The stories he tells involve him, yes, but almost always in the background. Across 30 years of remarkable anecdotes involving the university’s elite, he has been seemingly omnipresent; but told through his eyes, he is more or less a passionate observer. An old-school hype man who just feels lucky “to be in the room where it happens.” There is a humility, a deep-set gratitude that prevents him from making any story about himself. Even in this, an interview with a young writer asking questions about his life and accomplishments, he gravitates toward congratulating others.

Now at the end of his career, his stories usually conclude with a lesson, some edict of fundraising that punctuates each line in this, his closing chapter. There is an eagerness—an urgency, even—to pass on some bit of esoteric knowledge to the next generation of fundraisers at U-M. He speaks as though it might be his last chance to share his collected wisdom for the betterment of his community. Even in retirement, Jerry May is looking for the chance to give something back to Michigan.

“My job is to match people up and make the right moment happen—every single time. That’s what I do, all day.”

“You’re probably going to ask me what it takes to be a really successful fundraiser,” he begins. “There are a few qualities that are really important. The ability to listen, to read somebody, to get outside of yourself and be perceptive. You have to perceive what it’s like to be the other person, like Atticus Finch. It requires tremendous follow-up skills, the skills to mount a campaign, to not rush the relationships. There’s a lot of science to fundraising now, but the important part is that you have to want to learn. You have to genuinely want to know the person, expecting that they are never going to give you anything.”

“You also need to be able to ask yourself, ‘Why am I representing the University of Michigan? What’s the mission? And once you know, you have to be committed to that mission.” I ask him what the mission means to him. His affinity for Hamilton shines through—ironically—in harkening back to Jefferson.

“The mission is to make the world better. For me, it was always to help our society become stable. I still have that Jeffersonian ideal in myself,” he says. “Today, there’s a lot of data to support that there’s an ongoing assault on higher education. It’s become politicized, and that makes me feel sad. Like Jefferson, I’ve always thought that a well-educated population is a population that can maintain a democracy. There’s a level of populism in America today that seems to deny the value of education, that education is only about jobs, rather than finding satisfaction in yourself and meaning in your life. I think that’s sad. For me, the mission is about a stable society.”

Jerry and top Donors
At the Victors for Michigan campaign celebration, U-M’s two leading donors pose with its last two presidents and the man who brought them all together. From left: Campaign Co-Chair Rich Rogel (BBA ’70, HLLD ’09), Campaign Chair Stephen M. Ross (BBA ’62, HLLD ’11), Vice President for Development Emeritus Jerry May, President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman, and President Mark Schlissel.

I press him on what defines a stable society. “I want people to become what they can become. I want them to reach their potential. Higher education is one of the ways we reach our potential. That’s the part that I can help with,” he says. “I’ve helped people find meaning. I’ve helped students gain access to the University of Michigan. I’ve helped deans support their vision for programs that make a difference in people’s quality of life. It’s really been fun to be a part of it.” His voice catches in his throat for the first time and we pause for a break. He begins telling stories about the photos around the room to regain his composure.

I wouldn’t have you believe that Jerry May is all easy smiles and nostalgic reflection. Underlying those things, or perhaps just running parallel, there is a deep and driven intensity. It’s no surprise that catering to the wants and whims of an elite institution’s top benefactors instills a person with a certain competitive edge. It’s said that there was a time when he carried a laminated list of the biggest gifts made to universities in his pocket.  He kept that list up to date, because he wanted to know what he had to beat. Every day of his career has been spent chasing that goal.

“It’s a crazy pace,” he says. “I might be closing a gift. I might be asking where we are with another. How can we be moving this gift along for the School for Environment and Sustainability? How can I get us ready for this event at Michigan Medicine or the School of Music, Theatre & Dance? How can I figure out how we’re going to get that next $100,000 gift for a sculpture in front of the Museum of Art? In my role, you’re constantly reading the situation. You read body language, you read the tone of their voice on the phone, you read a person’s assistant in determining what kind of day it is. You’re thinking about the person you’re bringing into the meeting with you to ask for that next gift. Are you going to be able to do this justice? Is the person at your side going to be able to project their enthusiasm for this project? My job is to think about all of these things at once. My job is to match people up and make the right moment happen—every single time. That’s what I do, all day.”

The week before our interview, he did that with four billionaires in one day. An unusually busy workday, he concedes, but not unheard of. He started his morning with a run in Central Park and then got to work. That tireless enthusiasm has made him, maybe, the best person in the country at what he does.

Rich Rogel calls him “the Bo Schembechler of Development.” It’s a fitting comparison. In the same way that Schembechler defined the culture of the Michigan football program for a half century and beyond, May has built a development program that is unique in its culture and character. According to him, a record-breaking development operation is built mostly on trust. 

“I’m a broker of relationships, not a broker of money,” he says. “I tell gift officers that they are the glue between the donor and the University of Michigan. They first loved the University of Michigan. But you become an extension of the university. It’s why I try to help gift officers understand that when they are representing Michigan, that’s a sacred trust. You need to know what a privilege that is.”

I’m most curious to hear how that trust translates into an ask. What’s it like to sit across from a person and ask them to give away a million dollars, or as it’s occasionally been the case for May, $100 million?

“Pressure is your best friend,” he says. “It’s always a mixture of anxiety and excitement. It’s always more positive than it is negative. It’s always more exciting than it is scary. But it’s always both. Anybody that says this stuff is easy just isn’t tellin’ it like it is,” he says with a laugh. But he assures me that the moment is almost always more gratifying than it is grueling.

It’s a real thrill being able to meet with a donor and hear them say, ‘We’re going to do this,’” he reflects. “I love seeing the satisfaction in their faces when they make their gift, to see the excitement. It’s really a very special thing.”

Jerry May portraitHe recalls a recent example, closing a million-dollar anonymous gift. “The donor turned to me and said, ‘You know, I’m doing this because of you.’ I mean, talk about flattering. People don’t usually say that, but it’s happened a few times in my career. But right after we closed the gift, I turned to the donor and I said, ‘I want you know that this building you’re giving to is $6.5 million. This $1 million gift is an incredibly generous gift. But I just want you to know… if you want, you could name this building for $6.5 million.’ The donor turned to the dean and said, ‘Can you believe this guy?’” He laughs at the happy memory, one of thousands that will follow him into retirement. “You can really only do that with certain people. You have to have built the relationship and the trust. It’s a funny thing, but these are really kind of sacred moments.”

That kind of trust doesn’t come easily. May’s retirement has been two years in the making. Part of his responsibility has been to take every key development officer at U-M and pass on the relationships that he’s enjoyed with the university’s most passionate supporters. “I’m going to be gone in January,” he reflects. “I’ve tried to transfer the relationships, share the relationships, and try to get these people who, frankly, really like working with me, and say ‘Okay, I’m going to be gone soon.’ They’re looking at me and saying, ‘But… who am I going to work with?’”

He asks for another break and apologizes for getting emotional. When we resume, we turn the conversation to the future of Michigan.

“I hope Michigan builds on the culture of philanthropy that we’ve nurtured through campaigns since the 1950s,” he says. “We have built something special, and we have gone up, and up, and up. The people in the photos in this room, they identify with Michigan. They don’t give to campaigns. They give to Michigan, and in doing so, they become a part of the life of the University of Michigan. It’s really very special.”

Finally, I ask him what it will feel like to say goodbye. Not only to Michigan, but to the friends he’s made along the way. I ask him what will be going through his head when he steps to the podium tomorrow night to thank his many friends and take his final bow.

He draws a shuddering breath. Stifles a frown. Stares hard at the window. The dozens of faces around the room seem to offer encouragement. At the corner of his lips, the University of Michigan’s most indefatigable smile begins to break through.

“I think I’ll feel lucky.”

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