In a sure testament to the ability of one man to touch numerous lives for the good through that preciously rare combination of a keen mind for business and a warm heart for his fellow man, the grand ballroom of the Pine Bluff Country Club was filled to capacity Thursday night with the family, friends, and colleagues of retiring Simmons First National Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer J. Thomas May.
Despite a steadily falling rain that was matched by a steadily dropping thermometer, nearly 300 people were on hand to pay tribute to a man who oversaw the growth of Simmons from a bank with just over $500 million in assets when he arrived in 1987 to a regional powerhouse with more than $4.5 billion in assets today.
But as several well-wishers noted Thursday, the night was intended to be a celebration of the man and not a recounting of his business accomplishments.
Jim Kelley is the president and chief operating officer of Bancorp South Inc., based in Tupelo, Miss. as well as a longtime friend and colleague of May.
“If there’s a cell phone hall of fame there is a bust of Tommy in there,” Kelley joked. “I have never seen anyone on the phone more than Tommy. Once we were playing golf and he literally had two cell phones and was talking to people on both of them. I was starting to get a little annoyed because I was trying to play golf. Well, then my phone rang. I answered and the person on the other end asked, is Mr. May there? That’s a true story.”
The audience laughed at that and many other stories of the same ilk told by others, all sharing the common thread of gentle kidding of a man universally considered a close friend.
“The greatest gift on this Earth is the people that we get to travel on this journey with and I am so glad that Tommy May has been on the journey with me,” Kelley said with obvious emotion.
May’s oldest son, Chris May, nearly brought down the house with a hilarious and good-natured mild roasting of his father.
“During family vacations to the beach we were frequently told to hold down the noise as Dad spoke to any of a number of business contacts,” Chris May said. “Since Dad is about to retire we have told the grandchildren that he is about to get a lot more interested in their grades and will be expecting them to attend allowance budget meetings.”
Chris May ended his remarks with a heartfelt tribute to his father and all that he has done for his family.
Former University of Arkansas System President Alan Sugg got to know May in his role as member of the U of A Board of Trustees.
“On January 1, 2000, the University of Arkansas Razorbacks beat the University of Texas Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas,” Sugg said. “Now, we all know that Tommy is a huge Razorbacks fan, so you would have expected him to be at the game; but instead he was back in Pine Bluff in his office. The reason for that is that while he loves the Hogs, he loves Simmons and the people that work for the bank even more.”
Sugg reminded the crowd that the game took place at a time when businesses were worried about potentially catastrophic computer problems that might occur as a result of “Y2K” with the changeover from 1999 to 2000.
“Since he was requiring his IT people to be at the bank all night on New Year’s Eve he wanted to be there with his troops,” Sugg said.
George Mitchell served as CEO of Arkansas Blue Cross-Blue Shield at the time that May became a member of the company’s board of directors in 1980.
“Tommy has been a member of the board now for 33 years,” Mitchell said. “A total of three Arkansas Blue Cross CEOs including myself have served during Tommy’s tenure on the board. Tommy May is a fine friend, a fine leader and a fine colleague. Thank you.”
May joined the United States Marine Corps and went on to serve in Vietnam, a chapter in his life that was honored Thursday night when two Marines made a special presentaton to May. One Marine presented May with the Marine Corps flag and the other delivered a shadow box containing May’s patches, ribbons, medals and dog tags.
The evening concluded with a spirited and warm-hearted response from May, who used a microphone to project his voice, which has been weakened during his battle with ALS.
“It’s been a great night,” May said as he thanked his board chairman Harry L. Ryburn and the rest of his board of directors.
“I also want to thank [incoming CEO] George Makris for being a great leader and friend and for paying for all of this,” May said to laughter.
May then thanked his executive assistant, Randa Edwards, who has served with him for 27 years.
“She helped me raise my kids,” May said. “Once they were grown and in college they called Randa, to ask her for money. They got married and their wives called Randa, for money. Then I got married; you know the rest of the story.”
It was all trademark Tommy May humor, poking fun at his reputation for conservative money management and pinching pennies.
“Adam Robinson [owner of Ralph Robinson and Son Funeral Home] asked me recently what it’s like to be chairman and CEO and about to retire,” May said. “I said it’s like being president of a cemetery; a lot of people are below me but nobody’s listening.”
May’s words then took a reflective tone.
“I have terribly mixed emotions about retirement but only because I haven’t tasted it yet,” May said. “I am reminded of what Lou Gehrig said to his fans, that despite his diagnosis he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth; and I feel that way today.”
May will officially retire Dec. 31.
May will be honored at a reception open to the public from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center from 4:30 p.m. until 6 p.m.