Henry May, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of history, dies at 97

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UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Henry May, who is remembered for promoting unity on campus during the Free Speech Movement, died Saturday. He was 97.

May graduated from UC Berkeley in 1937 and spent more than 25 years in the campus department of history.

“He would be very attentive to what you had to say,” said campus history professor Paula Fass, a former colleague of May. “That was true with his students, very much so, and they appreciated him quite a lot.”

May grew up in the Claremont district and remained in the Bay Area for the majority of his life. During his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, he spent his free time as an editor of the campus’s literary journal and a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, according to his yearbook entry. After May graduated in 1937 with a degree in history, he left California to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard University before returning to the UC Berkeley campus, where he began teaching and conducting research in 1952.

Academically, May focused on American religion, the birth of American modernism and the American Enlightenment, writing many books on the subjects. Professors who studied under May when they were graduate students remembered that though he was formal with his students and colleagues, he was always willing to take the time to listen to his students, regardless of their viewpoints.

“His method was a quiet method of questioning what you said in an unexpected way,” said Samuel Haber, a campus professor emeritus of history who studied under May as a graduate student. “Seeing both sides was Henry May, and that made him a great historian … He felt for people who opposed each other in every period, and he put himself in the shoes of the radicals and the conservatives.”

The ability to understand diverging views carried through to the way that May managed to keep the campus history department unified as its chair during the Free Speech Movement — a time when many departments were experiencing internal strife.

“He also tried to be very objective and rational,” Fass said. “He tended to help create a more balanced kind of a department instead of just a kind of hot-headed radicalism.”

May had his own opinions about the Vietnam War but expressed them primarily to his friends and in formal debate, according to Haber.

Aside from his academic pursuits, May regularly attended Episcopalian church service and was known to enjoy German music, English poetry and French art. He also spent much of his retirement painting watercolors in his attic.

According to his daughter Ann, May often was found hiking in Marin and Tilden, talking with friends or learning foreign languages and traveling abroad. After his wife Jean passed away in 2002, May moved to Piedmont Gardens, a retirement community in Oakland, where he met and married Louise Brown and spent the remainder of his life.

“He was nuanced, as life is nuanced, and that makes depicting him very difficult,” said Haber. “The truth is not easy, and that’s why the story of his work is so good. You didn’t get a particular angle. His openness and sympathy with opposing sides in the department and in his scholarship were part of the same personality.”

Contact Megan Messerly at [email protected]