Edgar May, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on welfare for The Buffalo Evening News in 1960, died Thursday in Tucson, Ariz., where he had a winter home.
May suffered a stroke three weeks ago. He was 83.
Mr. May developed his welfare series by going undercover. He abruptly left his job at The News in 1959, grew a mustache, donned a pair of glasses that gave him headaches, and spent six months as a caseworker for what was then the Erie County Department of Social Welfare. His series of 14 articles, “Our Costly Dilemma,” which revealed an overwhelming snarl of red tape in the welfare system, led to an overhaul of county welfare operations, the hiring of more caseworkers and stepped-up prosecution of welfare fraud cases.
“Ed May holds a special place in the history of The Buffalo News,” News Editor Mike Connelly said Thursday. “His investigative reporting, including undercover work as a caseworker, made a difference in the administration of social services in Erie County and New York State. Decades later, his commitment to getting the story remains an impressive example of journalistic dedication.”
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Mr. May came to the United States with his widowed mother and his sister in 1940 as Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. He grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and Pittsfield, Mass. He began his newspaper career as a file clerk for the New York Times from 1948 to 1951 and took night classes at Columbia University.
He was a reporter and editor for the Bellows Falls (Vt.) Weekly Times from 1951 to 1953, where he won awards for his news and feature stories, and was a reporter for the Fitchburg (Mass.) Sentinel in 1953 before serving in the Army, where he was assigned for 18 months to the Public Information Office at Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago as a speech writer for the Fifth Army commander.
He graduated with a journalism degree from Northwestern University in 1957, then worked in Europe as a freelance writer before joining The News in 1958. Early in his career here, he found evidence that police overlooked at a murder scene that became crucial to the investigation.
After winning the Pulitzer, Mr. May wrote a book on welfare and poverty, “The Wasted Americans,” in 1964.
He was director of public welfare projects for the State Charities Aid Association of New York, a private health and welfare agency, when he was called to Washington, D.C., to become a member of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s study group on poverty. He became special assistant to Office of Economic Opportunity director Sargent Shriver, helping to form the anti-poverty agency, and in 1965 was appointed its assistant director of inspection.
He served as deputy director of VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps, and became a senior foreign service officer in Paris when Shriver was ambassador to France. He moved to Vermont in the early 1970s.
In 1974, he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives as a Democratic representative from Springfield, two years after his sister, Madeleine May Kunin, was elected to the House. She went on to become the state’s first female governor.
“He really had a passion for improving people’s lives,” Kunin told Vermont Public Radio. “He was dedicated to public service.”
After four terms in the House, Mr. May became a state senator in 1983, serving as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He retired in 1990.
“He was a lawmaker’s lawmaker. He was greatly regarded on both sides of the aisle and of course he had a great literary career,” Vermont State Sen. William Doyle, a Republican, told the Eagle Times newspaper of Claremont, N.H. “It was a great pleasure to serve with him, he will be greatly missed for his bipartisanship … both parties had great respect for him.”
In retirement, Mr. May concentrated on many community projects in Springfield, including the construction of a facility that bears his name, the Edgar May Health & Recreation Center, for which he was the chief advocate and fundraiser.
The center noted on its website that Mr. May “was particularly passionate about those who were less fortunate and demanded that our Recreation Center have the most affordable rates in our region, particularly for youth and senior citizens. [He] was also personally committed to ensuring that no resident be turned away due to the inability to pay.”
His first wife, the former Louise Breason, died in an auto accident in Vermont in 1967. He was seriously injured in the crash and was hospitalized for nearly four months.
Survivors include his sister. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
– News Staff Reporter Dale Anderson