According to a friend of George Jenkins High School Football and Softball Coach Jerry May, two words sum up his life: “Jerry loved.”
Earlier this month, GJHS Principal Tom Patton submitted a request to rename the football field at GJHS in honor of May, who passed away in July at the age of 59 from an allergic reaction to medication.
“It means the world that Jerry would be remembered and honored in this way,” his widow, Jan May, told the School Board, adding that she was surprised and shocked when she received a phone call that GJHS’s School Advisory Counsel committee voted to name the field in his honor.
In a message to LkldNow, she added that he lost his father, Willard May, when he was a boy: “Having grown up without a father, Jerry loved being able to work with young people and help them develop into their full potential.”
Principal Tom Patton said it was a well-earned honor for May, who began at GJHS in 2002 as a math teacher.
“This is a huge deal for our community,” Patton said. “Jerry was a longtime staff member engrained in our community – not just the school, in our South Lakeland Community, very involved in multiple groups, multiple clubs.”
In an email to LkldNow, Patton added: “I would say the thing about Jerry that was very well known was how well-liked and respected he was. It didn’t matter what group of staff or students he was engaging with, he had a way of genuinely connecting with people that made him stand out.”
Multiple people describe May as a man who positively impacted the lives of his wife, children Walker and Olivia, and the students at his school – in his classroom, on the football and softball fields, and in the youth ministries at Grace City Church and First United Methodist Church.
Lemar Griffin posted a video on Facebook in July when May died, saying, “When a man helps you become a better man, you owe him a thank you. This is my thank you to Jerry May.”
Griffin’s goal was to go to the NFL, which he did. But not in the way he thought he would. Griffin works as a photographer, videographer and editor for the billion-dollar industry.
Griffin said the day before May’s death, he and a former teammate were passing the ball in their current hometown of Denver when Griffin asked his teammate if he had talked with May recently. The teammate responded that he hadn’t spoken to May in a while, but the last time they had talked, May was doing well.
“I can truly attest a lot of my success today is thanks to Coach May,” said Griffin.
He explained that he desperately wanted to play quarterback at George Jenkins and begged May to put him in.
“Clearly that would have been a bad idea … He knew that for me to get to college, for me to leave Lakeland, Florida, that I needed to play like running back, receiver , you know, cornerback,” Griffin said, adding that May wasn’t denigrating his talents, but trying to guide him on the right path.
“(We) had intimate conversations about me wanting to play quarterback and just essentially run the ball. But he knew for me to get to college, what was best for me at the time I was in high school — he knew. And now that I’m older, I have a family. You know, I work in the NFL. I realized that the whole time, he was just always looking out for me, whether it was on the football field, when I ran track, as I became a father, he talked to me. This one just hurt … Coach May was — he was a good man. He was a really good man.”
Emily Cornelius played softball for May before her 2018 graduation.
“My biggest memory of Coach May was how his sense of humor would make every practice more enjoyable. He cared about each player on the team and would always know how to cheer us up,” Cornelius said. “I always remember joking with him about how I was going to go to the University of Georgia one day — not thinking it was possible. This past month I found out I got accepted in my graduate program (there) and I know he would be proud, giving that he was a HUGE Georgia fan, as well.”
May was born in Sandersville, Georgia, and graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina, where he played football and was a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
He and his wife Jan, who also grew up in Sandersville, moved to Lakeland in 1993 and raised Olivia and Walker here.
“Working with kids was his passion,” his family wrote in his obituary. “Jerry was passionate about mentoring young boys and guiding them to become men. His impact on the lives of the youth runs deep and wide.”
And his love for his family and friends was fierce, they said.
“He took immense pride in taking care of, providing for, and protecting those he loved most,” they wrote.
The Polk County School Board must still vote on the measure, but it seemed to have their full support at a recent meeting.
“Your husband clearly has had an impact,” Superintendent Frederick Heid said. “Obviously, he was, he’s an incredible man and it’s a great opportunity for us to recognize his level of commitment and the impact he had on students and what he contributed over time.”
School Board member Justin Sharpless said he spoke to his mother, Kelly Blankenship, who teaches at GJHS.
“I talked to her and she told me that the staff at George Jenkins High School thought so highly of Coach May that they made T shirts to honor him and the proceeds went to his youth group at church,” Sharpless said. “And so I think this is very appropriate to honor his legacy. I just want to say I fully support this naming of the field.”
Kay Fields also said she supports the renaming.
“May the work I’ve done speak for me and Coach May’s – his work speaks for him,” Fields said. “We look forward to the naming in his honor.”
Once the School Board approves the measure, the naming ceremony will take place in the fall.
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