Preparations for J. Thomas “Tommy” May’s retirement as chief executive officer of Simmons First National Corporation and Simmons First National Bank on Dec. 31 were officially initiated last year with the announcement that May would be succeeded by Pine Bluff businessman and longtime member of the Simmons Board of Directors George A. Makris Jr., who will take charge Jan. 1.
Makris will have some big shoes to fill and is certainly up to the task, but he would also be the first to agree that May’s departure represents the end of an era for Simmons and for Jefferson County.
May’s retirement was voted the No. 4 story of the year by The Commercial’s newsroom staff.
May was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease or ALS — in 2005. There is no cure for the disorder, but May has refused to let it stop him. He has since been forced to use a mechanized wheelchair in his rounds — at work as well as on the golf course.
May has taken SFNC from a bank with assets of just over $500 million in 1987 when he started working with the bank to a regional powerhouse with $4.5 billion in assets today.
May also recently landed a hole-in-one on the Pine Bluff Country Club golf course.
He has been at the forefront of assorted SFNC, educational and civic successes during his 27-year Simmons career. He is also noted and appreciated for his philanthropic endeavors.
A Marine Corps and Vietnam War veteran, May is a former member and chairman of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. A longtime supporter of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the J. Thomas May Fieldhouse there was named in his honor.
The El Dorado native and UA-Fayetteville graduate, who earned a master’s degree in business in 1972, has served as president of the Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce and also chaired the Jefferson County Port Authority, Pine Bluff Symphony and Arkansas Bankers Association.
He has won various professional and service awards and was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2007, he received the UA Chancellor’s Medal and Walton College of Business Lifetime Achievement Award.
May’s impact on Simmons and the state is far from over, however. At SFNC’s annual meeting in April, Makris announced that May would be the inaugural chairman of the new Simmons First Foundation. Initially endowed with $1 million, the foundation will be incorporated on Jan. 1. It will award project grants in communities within the SFNC service area.
Among the grants awarded will be the “Tommy May Make a Difference Grant.”