IU Mourns the Passing of Mary May
May 2, 2011
Courtesy of Susan L. Williams, Director of Indiana University Communications
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - When Mary Mannan May passed away on April 18 at the rich age of 88, she left behind five children, 19 grandchildren, 31 great grandchildren and six great great grandchildren. But those are just the official numbers. Unofficial totals include a rough estimate of 500 "adopted" girls and at least one self-professed "adopted" son.
Mary May joined the extended IU athletics family on January 10, 1977 as the department's first equipment coordinator for women's sports, just as women were gaining acceptance into the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference. She didn't just fill the position; she established and defined it, setting the standard on so many levels for those who would come after her when she retired on May 29, 1987.
She believed her position was God-given. "I was 55-years-old when they offered me this job, and I wasn't sure I could take on so much responsibility," she told an Indianapolis Star reporter for a 1986 story. "I have to sign a paper same as the coaches saying I won't do anything illegal to help or hurt these athletes. And I wasn't sure I wanted to turn my hours around working from one in the afternoon into the night. I often don't leave here until midnight.
"So I worried myself to death for three days until my daughter said, `Mommy, I just don't understand you. You've been praying for a new job, and here you have one and can't even see your prayer has been answered.'"
The Downy difference
"I don't like to wear stiff clothes, and I know the girls appreciate the difference," she told the Indianapolis Star. Mary, who said she couldn't afford to give money to the IU Varsity Club or the IU Foundation, considered the fabric softener her ongoing contribution to the women's athletics program. Let's see, about 25 loads worth of Downy each week day every spring and summer semester for 10 years -- no small gift, actually.
But scrubbing dirt from shirts stained from sliding into home head first and bleaching the white-turned-pink clothing of new IU freshmen doing their own laundry for the first time were the least of the tasks Mary considered necessary to fulfill the "requirements" of her position. There was much more to it than replacing missing buttons, mending torn seams, hemming too-long pants and folding countless pairs of socks.
While she accomplished all of that part of the job efficiently and expertly, the true measure of Mary's success was determined by what she gave to her "girls." Washing, drying, sorting and folding Downy-soft laundry really was love.
"Mary May was a giant of a human being," said Amy Metheny, an Indianapolis high school player who won the Mental Attitude Award in 1980 as part of the Indiana state champion Southport High School team. Today, Metheny is a pediatrician in Indianapolis.
"I really think the thing that made her so special to so many of us at IU was that she was the one person who truly cared for us and loved us unconditionally," Metheny said. "She asked nothing of us, except to make sure to write our initials on our underwear. And really, who else would have done all our stinky, sweaty underwear? That wasn't part of her job -- only the uniforms were -- but she did it for us because she knew we were college kids away from home, and it made us feel cared for. I'll never forget the way she would fold it all perfectly in front of our lockers.
"I can't imagine how many athletes stayed at IU and didn't transfer closer to home, because Mary May was like a second mom to them."
`Goodness to the core'
"Mary May was about feelings for me," said Melissa (Missy) Leckie, who came to IU from Saginaw, Mich., and played on the Big Ten championship team with Metheny. She is a family law attorney in Michigan today. "I felt good (with Mary) because she was just plain and simple goodness to the core. I felt safe because she was always a constant. I felt awe sitting and talking while she did laundry and thinking `how does she not forget anything?' I felt special because she always took time to listen, smile, support and share a story. I felt proud to have been graciously welcomed as one of her girls."
Another member of the 1983 basketball team, Melinda (Sparky) Sparkman, from Scottsburg, Ind., shares a funny memory of how far Mary would go support her girls. Sparkman still lives in Scottsburg (or "God's Country," as she calls it, said Metheny) and works in Louisville as a financial analyst. "When I was a freshman, (then) Coach Jodi Malchodi made me, Missy Lecki, Sue Hodges and another player (Sue Baas, adds Metheny) take a ballet class. Well, we had nothing to wear to it. Mary May went back into her storage and found us old gymnastics uniforms. Of course we had to cut the arms out, and we wore tube socks. We were the funniest bunch of `big girls' among all the other petite girls. Mary May saved our day!"
Ethel Gregory came to IU from Gary, Ind., to play basketball and softball as an undergraduate and ended up working as a graduate assistant coach for Malchodi in 1980-81. She's an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University now. "I have so much to share about Mary May. We never called her Mary; it was always `Mary May!' Mary May was the kindest, most selfless and giving person I'd ever met," Gregory said. "We also called her our 'Equipment Matron.' I looked up 'matron,' here's what I found -- matriarch; important; distinguished; extraordinary; with dignity; leading figure; leading light. I'll add loving and loved."
The other thread that runs through Mary May's memorial page is how much she loved, loved, loved Indiana University athletics, especially basketball and Bob Knight. Robin Tarr, Mary May's oldest granddaughter, admitted that her grandmother often wondered who she belonged to because she wasn't much of a sports fan. "I remember her beating in the air or on her legs or grabbing the Harlequin romance out of my hands and throwing it across the room, because I wasn't watching the ballgame," she said.
"I think Mary May could have gotten a lot of her IU spirit from her dad," said Allen, the basketball team manager. Originally from Palmyra, Ind., she now is an athletic trainer in Hilo, Hawaii. "One story she told me numerous times when talking about her dad was that when they would listen to the IU basketball games together on the radio, he would sit there with his ear against the radio yelling, `Pour it on, IU! Pour it on!!' But she put so much emotion when saying, `Pour it on,' I always thought to myself, `Well, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree on this one.' She never cheered for IU basketball, men's or women's, without doing it with total gusto."
Another grandma for Mesh'a
Salters' daughter, Mesh'a, was born in the spring of that All-American, championship season, and it was in no small part with Mary's amazing grace that she came back to finish her senior year at IU. "Mary May is a big reason I was able to stay in school and graduate on time," Salters said. "She helped me make decisions and gave me that secret guidance that was only between us. Mary kept my child right there with her own grandchildren, and I knew my child was safe and sound. Her grandson would cry when John (football player John Salters) and I would come to pick Mesh'a up at night, because he wanted her to stay. When I came home from long road trips, tiring games - what a savior she was to us.
"I am forever grateful to her family for sharing such an awesome lady. Mary will remain that wonderful `mom-away-from-home-mom' to me. I loved that lady. Mary would tell me what I was going to do, and I'd just `yes, maam.' There was no changing your mind with her!"
It's ironic that the long-time and also beloved men's equipment manager Floyd "Red" Grow died this past winter, as well. Mary often lent him a hand with mending men's uniforms and was known to perform her magic when the occasional white uniform got thrown in with a red t-shirt.
"The men use a bag method, where the boys just throw everything in a mesh bag, and it gets washed all together - purple, green, red, white or whatever," she told the Indianapolis Star. "I always say I'd quit before I do it that way. I won't wash colors with whites. Now I don't think the men do their game uniforms that way, but every once in a while somebody up there makes a mistake."
Mary's own method of knowing what belonged to each player was to assign a number to each athlete. Using her ever-present black Sharpie, she marked the number into each piece of clothing, and using her corresponding list of girls, laundry was sorted, folded and delivered to the correct lockers. She told the Indianapolis Star it was a "childish" system, but it worked - never did a red-stained shirt emerge from Mary's washing machine.
`A real role model'
IU women's tennis coach Lin Loring came to IU at age 27. He would build one of the country's most successful Division-I women's tennis programs, becoming the winningest coach in NCAA history and a two-time national coach-of-the-year, producing 16 Big Ten championship teams in 32 years, numerous All-Americans and Big Ten Players-of-the-Year.
But Mary May was his mom, too.
"Mary was there at the start of women's athletics in Assembly Hall," Loring said. "In an era without cell phones and Facebook, when student athletes would feel homesick and disconnected, Mary was everyone's second mom.
"And then there was that 27-year-old-bachelor who would bring her buttons to sew on and pants to hem," he continued. "She was also my mom away from home. She was a wonderful lady who touched the lives of everyone who knew her."
On Mary May's memorial page, Metheny described Mary May's funeral services for teammates and friends who could not attend. "Sparky and I attended Mary May's funeral today, and it was wonderful, albeit sad," she wrote. "It was a beautiful spring day in southern Indiana with the redbud trees in full bloom. As they started the funeral, in between songs of `The Old Rugged Cross,' `In the Garden,' and `How Great Thou Art,' the IU fight song started to play. The entire place stood and began to clap with the song, and Mary May's sister yelled out a shout at the end of the song....only in Indiana."
And, maybe, only for Mary May.
Note: Metheny and Sparkman are in the early stages of researching the possibility of a lasting memorial to Mary May. Anyone interested in more information should contact Metheny at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sparkman at email@example.com.
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