Longtime mayor left his mark

Robert H. May: Former Augusta mayor served off and on for four decades, stepping aside only when offered a retirement stipend.

Augusta's May Park is usually thought of as the scene of the annual Mayfest celebration.


But May Park should remind us that it's named for former Augusta Mayor Robert H. May, one of our town's longest-serving chief executives.

He's rarely mentioned these days, but the people of his time thought a lot of him. They kept putting him back in office.

First elected just before the Civil War, May served off and on through the next four decades.

He was generous. While mayor, May headed a charitable group called the Augusta Purveying Association, which donated substantial funds to the poor.

May visited the city's needy and gave freely of his own money, efforts that were remembered in the years ahead when he asked residents for their vote.

He was practical. Toward the end of the Civil War, the Confederate command hastily ordered May to burn the wealth of cotton bales stored in town to keep them from enemy hands.

May suggested the bales be moved out of town before being put to the torch because, he reasoned, doing so inside the city would probably burn everything.

He was a perceptive politician. After the war, May recommended that city council elections be returned to a district-style "ward system."

In an 1865 speech to the council, May pointed out that without such districts it would be possible for some portions of the city -- through concentrated effort -- to control the elections of all. His advice was taken.

And he was clever. In 1890, political opinion seemed certain that the aging mayor, affectionately called "Uncle Robin," would not seek re-election. Many new contenders began to stretch their political wings, until the old man crossed them up.

May surprised almost everyone by announcing that he wanted yet another term. He began to make speeches around town and retained solid support from both black and white working-class voters.

The young politicians gave in.

The city council offered the longtime mayor a generous "retirement" stipend. He accepted, then finally stepped aside.

A century after his death, he is largely forgotten, but he shouldn't be. Men such as May had a lasting impact on building the town Augusta is today.