The frustrating thing about Tommy May is that because he checks so many boxes in life, we’re not sure which Tommy May we’re going to miss the most. Family man, check. Man of faith, check. Nice guy/neighbor, check. Community leader, check. Local cheerleader of the highest order, check. Bank guru, check. Rock star on state and national stage, check. Inspiration to all, check.
You could pick any two or three, and we’d all still be celebrating him and his retirement. When you put them all together, it forces you to sit down and look at the man in wonder. (Which we did in a 12-page special section in today’s Pine Bluff Commercial.) Then we have to remind ourselves that he’s just retiring from the Simmons bank detail, and the rest of what Tommy May has been about all these years will still be intact. (Insert sigh of relief here.) And even in retirement, he’s got a new job in running the foundation that Simmons created.
J. Thomas “Tommy” May’s retirement today as chief executive officer of Simmons First National Corporation means his successor on Wednesday, George A. Makris Jr., Pine Bluff businessman and veteran member of the Simmons Board of Directors, will have the major task of living up to the example set by the retiring banker. We have every confidence in Makris — especially since May says Makris is already doing a good job!
May was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2005. He didn’t let the disorder stop him, utilizing a mechanized wheelchair at work and on the golf course. We recall a fellow back in town who went by Simmons to say hello to May after the fellow had been away for several years, not knowing what he might find, what with his banker/friend’s diagnosis. May was away that afternoon; he had jetted up to St. Louis to tend to his duties as director of the Federal Reserve Bank. So much for giving in to his illness.
A Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, where he served in a G-2 or intelligence capacity, his neighbors still recall May returning from his morning run attired in a USMC T-shirt – dripping with sweat – giving each one he passed a hearty smile and “good morning.”
Bankers are usually judged by the bottom line and May was successful by that benchmark, helping grow the Pine Bluff-based Simmons from a bank with assets of slightly over $500 million in 1987 when he came here from El Dorado to a regional banking power with $4.4 billion in assets today.
However impressive that figure is, he will be remembered for leading Simmons’ philanthropic, educational and civic successes during his more than a quarter of a century at the helm.
He rejected few challenges. In mid-1987 he rode a Brahma bull down Fifth Avenue to challenge others to participate in the Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce “Bullish on Pine Bluff” membership drive.
A former member and chairman of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, he has been a longtime supporter of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. May spearheaded the fundraising campaign to bring the UAPB football program into the modern world with an impressive stadium and athletic fieldhouse.
In 2011, the university named the stadium’s fieldhouse the J. Thomas May Fieldhouse, in honor of his dedication to the school.
He 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.
In 2007, he received the UA Chancellor’s Medal and Walton College of Business Lifetime Achievement Award. He was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2010.
He believed in using the bank’s philanthropic resources as seed money for a number of projects, including development of Saracen Landing and the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.
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 at the start of the new year to award project grants in communities within the corporation’s service area.
It seems only natural that grants awarded will be the “Tommy May Make a Difference Grant.”
May understands more than most how to “dream big” and reach out to help those in need. Pine Bluff’s CASA Women’s Shelter is a perfect example of big dreams.
The center was the recipient of a $3.6 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation for construction of the new 14,265-square-foot facility at 1113 State St. Volunteers defied the naysayers.
The steering committee, headed by May, worked tirelessly to raise more than $700,000 to match the Reynolds grant to build, equip and furnish the shelter.
Tommy May enjoys dreaming big and the Pine Bluff area has been the beneficiary of his philanthropic dreams.
“Courage, strength and character are built on this journey,” a sage noted years ago. “Grace, composure, and endurance are tested and multiplied.”
May said his mentors advised him not to get involved in something unless it was with both feet and both hands and the reason was to make a difference. Indeed, Mr. May, you have made a difference. A very big difference. Thank you.