Lee May, 73, taught us lessons of life – whether it be from news or the garden

By Maria Saporta

Journalist Lee May was one of those rare human beings who was universally loved.

Whenever anyone talked about Lee May, a warm glow and a smile inevitably followed. He was an old soul with a kind heart and a contagious spirit of good will.

So it was with great sadness when I learned on Tuesday from his equally amazing partner in life – Lyn May, that he was at home under hospice care just two months after being diagnosed with cancer. One day later, on Dec. 3, he passed away.

Oh Lee May – a man of the earth who covered some of the hardest-hitting news stories of his day – and then spent his later years writing about and indulging in his passion of gardening. A metaphor of life and death.

In his book – Gardening Life, Lee May wrote poetically about discovering his art:

I began seeing that all the lessons of life grow in the garden — everything from birth to growth, nurturing, love, passion, and sometimes heartbreak. As a writer, I saw a wonderful challenge and opportunity: Tell those lessons, and others, through gardening — mine and others’. Focusing on these life stories, I hoped, would make my writing accessible to gardeners and non-gardeners alike.

Lee May in January magazine 1999

Lee May in January magazine 1999

Lee May and I worked together at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – a place where he was idolized, respected and loved by his peers.

An obit prepared by Lyn May said he had spent 25 years as journalist working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times.

During his tenure with the L.A. Times, he wrote on a variety of issues including immigration and economics, and he covered the White House during the Reagan administration. He moved from Washington, D.C. to become the Atlanta bureau chief for the L.A. Times in 1989.

As a news writer and editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lyn May said she believes he was the first African-American editorial writer for the newspaper.

Later he became the food and gardening columnist who was featured in the newspaper’s Sunday Home & Gardens section.

Lyn and Lee May - a special love

Lyn and Lee May – a special love

During his career, Lee May also was a senior contributing editor for Southern Living and an essayist for US Airways’ in-flight magazine – Attaché, as well as numerous home and garden publications.

Born on April 15, 1941, Lee May was a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He won countless awards during the span of his life, including the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Gold Medal Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award Grand Prize. In addition to writing Gardening Life, Lee May also was the author of the book – My Father’s Garden.

Lee and Lyn May were fortunate to find each other in mid-life after previous marriages joining forces in 1985.

Lyn – whose formative career was as a television journalist, was communications director for the 1996 Olympic Games and executive director of the Georgia Campaign of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (the nonprofit started by Jane Fonda).

My colleague, Lyle Harris, who called me Thursday to tell me Lee had passed away, spoke of how Lee and Lyn May were such a special union of two incredible individuals.

A still shot from the video interview he did for Celestine Sibley

A still shot from the video interview he did for Celestine Sibley

“I always wanted to be them when I grew up,” Lyle said. I knew exactly how he felt.

In addition to Lyn, Lee May is survived by three daughters, two stepdaughters, two sons-in-law and 12 grandchildren.

When I spoke to Lyn on Thursday afternoon, she coyly admitted their love had continued to the end. She would tell him stories, how Mayor Marion Barry had died – sharing a cynical comment that comes easily to journalists. She heard some groans from Lee. “Are you laughing,” she asked. He nodded his head.

Another moment she shared – on the day he died, Lyn leaned over and kissed him – telling him she loved him – and that’s when he took his last breath.

One of my great regrets is that I had not seen Lee in years. Lee and Lyn recently had moved back to Georgia after spending years in Connecticut. And I had no idea he had cancer (he had survived Hepatitis C for more than a decade).

At least I had the good sense to suggest that Lee May would be a good person to interview for the Atlanta Press Club’s Hall of Fame video on the induction of Celestine Sibley.

Lyn told me that taping the APC-Celestine video was one of his last outings before he got so sick. So if you click on this link, you can see a four-minute video that honors both Celestine Sibley and features Lee May – a woman and man for the ages.

The two had a similar spirit – a love of nature and people mixed in with a bit of mischief – the good kind.

Lyn sent me a photo of Lee she said I could post – it was one that made her both laugh and cry because it captured the sweet devilish spirit that was one of his charms.

Lee May with a devilish smile

Lee May with a devilish smile

I also combed facebook and found some other lovely pictures that really show both the inner and outer beauty of Lyn and Lee.

In an email to friends, Lyn thanked them for helping “honor the divine Eddie Lee.”

“Please know that he was as good in his private life as he was publicly and professionally. I will miss him every day,” she wrote. “I didn’t say anything here about funerals because we aren’t having one.  He’ll be cremated in the next few days and there will be a celebration of his life in February in Roswell and one in Connecticut in April.”

I want to end this ode to Lee May with his own words – taken from an article written by Janice Farringer in September 1999 for the magazine called: January.

She commented to him that he spoke publicly about his feelings as easily as he wrote about them. Was he always able to be so verbal and open with his feelings?

I was not always so open,” Lee answered. “Aging is a freeing process; it teaches me that revealing feelings can be instructive to others, entertaining sometimes — rather than dangerous, which is what I thought as a younger man.

A caveat: There is a danger in revealing too much. Some things a reader just doesn’t need — or want — to know. Certain revelations can embarrass both the reader and the writer. So, the writer has to know when to stop… revealing.”

To lovely Lyn May - with love from all of us who loved Lee

To lovely Lyn May – with love from all of us who loved Lee

 

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

10 replies
  1. Molly Darden says:

    What a wonderful obit for a lovely gentleman!
    One of my favorite stories about Lee is about his mother. Whenever she would want a cutting from someone else’s plant, she would say, “Oh, this needs pruning; I’ll do it for you,” and pinch off a sprig which eventually found it’s way to her garden.
    Reading about Lee, who was one month younger than I am, grew up in an era of charm, grace, and an appreciation for simple pleasures. I’m so blessed to have followed his articles in the AJC for so many years!Report

    Reply
  2. ktsullivan51 says:

    Ah, Lee, it’s so sad to lose you. My life has been warmed by your graciousness, gentle wit, and incredible talent with words and plants.  I will cherish my memories of our walks and talks along your garden paths.  For me they were a spiritual experience, enhanced by returning to the house and a couple who were perfection together.  Dear Lyn, my heart is breaking for you and with you.Report

    Reply
  3. charris49 says:

    Dear Lyn,
    Cozell and I are so saddened to hear of the passing of your beloved Lee.  You too are the inspiration of committed love and admiration.  Lee’s book “My Father’s Garden” continues to be one of the best novels we have read about life and faith. God’s blessings to you and the beautiful memory of your husband and soul mate.
    Patricia & Cozell Harris
    Savannah, GAReport

    Reply
  4. Robaire says:

    Now living abroad, I was lucky to stumble upon Maria’s story about Lee’s passing.  He was always an inspiration to me, as a man and as a writer, and now that I am doing permaculture in France — as a gardener.  Godspeed, Lee May.Report

    Reply
  5. Maynard Eaton says:

    Lee May was a class act and top notch journalist—a pioneering Black journalist who wrote and reported with grace and distinction.  He will be missed.  And, what an attractive and winning couple he and Lynn May were—a dynamic and delicious pair of prime time journalists and people!!Report

    Reply

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