Many people would be proud to possess even one or two of the skills Patricia Jolene May somehow found the time to master.
She spoke fluent Russian and German and founded a translation agency. She held a pilot’s license and a black belt in karate. A talented pianist, she wrote musicals for her church’s junior choir. She designed and sewed clothing. She went sky diving and traveled in five continents. She loved elephants so much that she filled her house with hundreds of decorative elephants, including one she hand-tiled in the family’s shower stall.
“She was handy, she could garden, she could play music,” said daughter Jackie May Parkison of Lafayette, Ind. “She was a total polymath.”
May, 69, died Nov. 1 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — at her home in Lakeville.
Born in Breckenridge, Minn., Patricia Holmes received a National Merit Scholarship and attended Michigan State University along with her future husband, Bob May. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics at the University of Minnesota and later a master’s in management at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
When Bob, an Air Force pilot, was stationed in the Philippines, Patricia May got a pilot’s license of her own. She spoke Russian and German well enough to be mistaken for a native speaker, according to her husband.
“What she would have liked to do, I think, is skip the work thing and just learn a new language every few months,” he said.
Instead, she became a self-employed translator. In 1993, she founded an agency called Tembua — a blend of the Swahili words for elephant and understanding — that connected businesses with translators offering 150 languages. Her ear for languages was so acute, Bob May said, that on a 1990 trip to England she went through customs and emerged with a British accent. Not on purpose: “She didn’t even realize it,” he said.
She spoke with the accent throughout their five-day visit, dropping it only when someone mentioned it and she concentrated on not doing it. “It happened when we moved to Texas, too,” Bob May said.
He isn’t sure where his wife got her love for elephants, but she surrounded herself with images of them. The Tembua company logo is an elephant, the company’s website is filled with pictures of elephants, and their home contains 200 to 300 elephant sculptures and figurines.
She rode one in Thailand, and her husband has a photo of her “up close and personal with a baby elephant” at a Nairobi elephant sanctuary. Right after the cute picture was taken, he said, the elephant “backed up two steps and took a run and knocked her over.”
May played piano in competitions and directed the junior choir at Messiah Lutheran Church in Lakeville. For several years she wrote a musical with 10 or 12 songs that the choir performed at church and in nursing homes.
One year, Bob May said, “She had a song for the rain clouds, a song for the animals and a song about Noah telling God that he’s just going to be stubborn and not do anything. Which may not be exactly according to the church, but it worked out well.”
When May decided she needed exercise, she earned a black belt in Shotokan karate. She didn’t just sew clothes for her family but designed and constructed the patterns.
“She could do more things in more ways than a lot of people could,” Parkison said.
“She never wanted to be resting on her laurels,” Bob May said. “She always wanted to be learning something new.”
Besides her husband and Parkison, she is survived by daughters Kathryn May Ellis of Rosemount and Rebecca May Grant of Madison, Wis., and 10 grandchildren. Services have been held.