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CHANCELL-ING: Grads, Dads and Wisdom

By Chancellor Gary S. May on June 7, 2019 in University

We’ve entered the peak season for dispensing wisdom as graduation ceremonies uplift UC Davis and schools all over the region. Commencement speakers (including myself) are ready to encourage the crowds in caps and gowns to think boldly, serve the greater good and be a role model for others.

With all of these remarks on my mind and Father’s Day approaching, I can’t help but think of the wisdom my own dad passed along to me.

Chancell-ing logoI come from a fairly humble background, which isn’t necessarily the norm for many leaders in higher education. was a public school teacher in St. Louis. My dad was a postal worker. We weren’t privileged by any means, but our family had no shortage of love and support.

My dad, Warren May Jr., passed away in 2006 and he’s missed every day. I think of how much he loved riding horses. I think of him slipping me a dollar for each “A” I got on my report card — a great deal since comic books were just six for a dollar back in the day.

I think of the times he told me I would be president one day. That hasn’t come true, but I still like to think I did him proud. He would’ve got a kick in knowing his “Star Trek”-loving son interviewed William Shatner recently at UC Davis and even dined with him, too.

As we prepare to celebrate Father’s Day on June 16, here are a few pieces of my dad’s wisdom that I keep close:

Carry yourself with confidence

Chancellor Gary S. May as a high school student with his parents.
Chancellor Gary S. May, then a high school student, with his parents.

I think of a family picture from my high school years. We’re posing in our St. Louis living room and my dad looks like the coolest father on the block. He’s wearing a sharp suit with a hat that matches his pocket square and tie. His style game is definitely on point.

It wasn’t about fashion for him. My dad believed we should project a sense of confidence, to be proud of who we are and not be afraid to show it. It’s a quality I’ve tried to carry throughout my life, from college years to my current days of meeting with civic officials, fellow leaders in higher education, and yes, William Shatner.

It’s never too late to get an education

Just after I graduated from college, our family celebrated another milestone as well. My dad earned a degree in business.

This was truly a happy moment for our family, one that always valued the importance of education. My dad showed he was willing to walk the talk when it came to setting goals and bettering ourselves through studying. Knowing this example, I feel proud that UC Davis welcomes students from all walks of life, whether they’re freshmen straight out of high school or earning degrees while juggling work and family lives.

No one is better than anyone else

Supporting civil rights and equality were always key values in the May household. Some of this sprung from my mom’s experiences in college, when she was among the first African Americans to integrate the University of Missouri. Some of this was impressed upon me directly, like when I was taunted as a kid for being black, or the time the N-word was scrawled on my dorm room door in college.

My dad believed that all of us in the family deserved a fair shot in life, that we deserved to make our dreams come true through hard work and an education. I certainly carry this ideal with me now, especially as we work hard to make our university the most welcoming and inclusive place it can be. As we like to say at UC Davis, “Come as you are.”

Family first

My family life with LeShelle always seems to be on the go. Our careers keep us busy with meetings and traveling, but my dad impressed one great thing upon me: The most important job you’ll have is being a dad.

I’m grateful that my dad was there for my sister and I, that we could count on him for advice or support no matter how long he’d been delivering mail that day. He showed me that no matter what ups and downs come your way, family is there for you. And in turn, you need to be there for them as well.

LeShelle treated me to a gift when I turned 55 last month: dinner in Atlanta with my daughters, Simone and Jordan. No matter how much time passes, nothing beats the feeling of being a dad.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads — and congratulations to the Class of 2019!

Chancellor Gary S. May’s monthly column appears first in and then in Dateline UC Davis.

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