City Attorney Mike May’s last day nears

Free spirit was a good fit for Madison
Faces Of Mike May
Mike May, accomplished attorney and free-spirited Badgers fan. (Photos courtesy of Mike May)

For more than a decade, Mike May’s distinguished run as Madison’s city attorney coincided with my somewhat less distinguished run as a daily newspaper columnist in the city.

While my city government beat colleagues wrote about May’s work on important issues like the Overture Center, a minimum wage law for Madison, and how city committees should best operate, I was pleased to learn May has a humorous side.

“City attorney” and “free spirit” do not often appear in the same sentence.

Still, May was spirited enough that I found myself writing about his traveling the country to big college football rivalry games with his pals Chico and the Judge; his efforts to get people to pronounce Rosa Road correctly; the sad day his one of a kind Badger letter jacket was ripped off in Pennsylvania; and how he presided over Stuart Levitan’s purchase of Richard Nixon’s golf balls.

With retirement imminent — June 1 is his last day as city attorney — it seemed a good time to check in with May, who was appointed by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz in 2004.

“It’s been a great run,” he says. “I really enjoyed the work.”

May is Madison to the core. Not only was he born here — at St. Mary’s Hospital in 1954 — he’s never lived elsewhere, and attended UW­–Madison for undergrad and law school after graduating from Holy Name Seminary High School.

May spent more than two decades in private practice with Madison’s Boardman Law Firm, getting the chance early to work with founder Wade Boardman and eventually taking a leadership role at the firm.

While with Boardman, May represented numerous municipalities across the Midwest on land use and other issues. It was a good background for a city attorney. Cieslewicz’s chief of staff, Janet Piraino, urged May to apply. He got the job.

May has been a college football fan longer than he’s been a lawyer. He and his Ogg Hall roommate, Mike McWilliams, aka Chico, attended games at Camp Randall as students. They’ve kept season tickets ever since, usually going to at least one away game every year as well.

A third conspirator, retired jurist Pete Dockery, aka the Judge, signed on when they embarked on a rivalry tour, picking one game each season. Army-Navy was first, in 2006.

The tour reached its zenith in 2013 when the trio attended the Alabama-Auburn game. Underdog Auburn, at home, won in stirring fashion when they returned a missed field goal for a touchdown on the game’s last play.

May told anyone who would listen that it was the greatest college football game of all time. His sister took umbrage. “Greater than the 1994 Rose Bowl?” she asked.

May was following the Badgers, to Penn State in fall 2007, when his beloved UW letter jacket was stolen. His group had rented an RV. It was parked in sight of the stadium when May retired for the night and left the jacket outside on a lawn chair. In the morning it was gone.

“In 20 years, I only saw one other one like it,” May says, noting its script lettering across the front and white leather sleeves. His pleading letters to newspapers and watchful eye on eBay did not produce it.

May’s efforts to pass an ordinance in Madison in 2013 requiring city employees to pronounce Rosa Road properly — it’s “Rozay Road” — had a better result. May’s wife, Briony Foy, grew up in the Crestwood neighborhood and remembered the “Rozay” pronunciation from her youth, even though more recently most people called it “Rosuh Road.” May researched and learned the road was named for Charles D. Rosa, a distinguished judge who coauthored the official Wisconsin state song. He pronounced his name “Rozay.” The ordinance passed.

May also created an ordinance establishing a holding place for Madison regulations that have been ruled invalid by state law. The hope is someday the Legislature might come to its senses and they can be revived. He called it the “77 Square Miles” ordinance.

In his private practice days, May began hosting parties, often at the old Avenue Bar, to commemorate the August 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. It was there that journalist/historian Stu Levitan purchased, for $16, two golf balls on which was printed the Nixon library logo.

I should close by noting most of May’s time was obviously spent doing serious work for the city, and he leaves a legacy much appreciated by colleagues.

In January, when May announced he would be leaving this spring, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway cited his “long career guiding the City through a lot of growth and countless legal challenges.” In the Wisconsin State Journal, Ald. Mike Verveer called May “an exceptional lawyer” and “a really good man.”

May says he hopes to do some private practice law in the future, and he’s running for State Bar president in an election that closes April 24.

There is still the unresolved matter of the missing letter jacket.

He chuckles. “It’s amazing how many people ask me about that,” May says. “I think more people know about my lost letter jacket than know I was city attorney.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.