Cathy May, a DePaul political science professor and alumna of the university, passed away on Sept. 23 after a hard fought battle with pancreatic cancer. Her unwavering dedication to not only her craft, but her students, is something all of her colleagues remember about her.
The majority of May’s adult life was spent at DePaul. She first came to the university as an undergraduate student studying political science in the 1980s.
Professor emeritus Michael Mezey and his wife Susan were two of May’s undergraduate professors — and lifelong friends. He said May was not an “ordinary” student.
“There were relatively few political science majors and Cathy stood out,” Mezey said. “I remember her back then always being inquisitive, smart, did the work, talked a great deal in class and raised questions. And so many of us encouraged her to go do graduate work in political science.”
And May did just that. Following her time at DePaul, she went on to receive her doctorate in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Like Mezey, professor emeritus Larry Bennett first met May as an undergraduate student when she took his urban politics class and ended up being lifelong friends. He described her as an “enthusiastic” and “smart” individual in the classroom, and in detailing the work of her dissertation.
“She wrote a doctoral dissertation on the concept of home and its opposite homelessness,” Bennett said. “So she was initially a student in American politics but she ended up doing a dissertation that probably put her a little closer to political theory than American politics.”
Bennett said May had a series of teaching jobs before she returned to DePaul — including University of Wisconsin Parkside and Triton College.
“Cathy was a very opinionated person and not one to keep her misgivings about things to herself,” Bennett said. “And I think that at Triton things happened… but as a faculty member there at some point she felt that she needed to speak out about some of the decisions that were being made.”
When she did return to DePaul, this time as a professor of political science and eventually as head of the department’s internship program for over 20 years, May brought the same fiery spirit she had in her undergrad days.
Her colleagues remember her as a professor completely dedicated to her students.
“You know, by now the faculty members you go to see [during office hours] and they can define attendance that they want you gone,” Mezey said. “That wasn’t Cathy. Cathy would spend as much time as you needed with her. She was asking about you, about your personal life, about your academic goals, and work with you.”
Mezey recalled a time towards the end of his career at DePaul when he performed a peer-evaluation of May in the classroom.
“It was exhausting watching her,” Mezey said. “She had so much energy.”
Scott Hibbard, department chair of political science at DePaul, agreed that May’s animation in the classroom made her stand out among students and faculty. He peer reviewed her class once, too, and said that in an effort to help her students understand the topic they were discussing, she pulled in pop culture — ultimately breaking into song.
“I’m just laughing that, yeah, here she is, in the middle class breaking out in song,” Hibbard said. “And, you know, of course, the flip side is I would never do that. But this is kind of Cathy, I mean, there’s just no inhibitions. When she was there, she was there.”
But what made May a great teacher as opposed to a good one was her commitment to her students outside of the classroom. Muhammad Ramadan, a DePaul alum, wrote in a Facebook tribute that she saved his life.
Ramadan, who grew up on the South Side, wrote in his tribute that he felt as if he didn’t fit in at DePaul — that he “wasn’t good enough” — and was planning on dropping out. But May told him otherwise.
“I’ll never forget when she said to me, ‘Listen kiddo, you’re smart and talented. You can go places. But you’re very rough around the edges (lol) if you listen and work hard I can help you get to where you want to be,’” he wrote.
Ramadan now has his own legal practice and remained close with May until she died. He wrote in the tribute that the two cried together in her office when he was accepted to Michigan State University’s law school, after he was rejected from a number of other law schools. May attended his wedding and “danced as if she was family.”
“These, and plenty more, are lessons I will always carry with me,” Ramadan wrote in his Facebook tribute. “She helped shape the foundation of my life as a man, both personally and professionally. For that, I am forever grateful. I hope and pray I can always live up to the standard she set out for me.”
While she cared deeply about her students, she also loved what she taught.
“She loved ideas. And she loved politics. And she loved intellectual engagement. And if you’re a good teacher, you know, part of it is being able to share that,” Hibbard said. “A good teacher can present material in a way that their enthusiasm is infectious, and people become excited about the material because you’re excited about material.”
May’s area of expertise was symbolic politics, which is the examination of how politicians make policy emotional.
“It’s just whose team are you on, and where, viscerally, are you,” Hibbard said. “The criticism is that this has contributed to the dumbing down of politics, that it’s really about the manipulation of symbols and imagery in a manner that can mislead the electorate. But on more than one occasion, whether in the hall or in the pub or over dinner, she would be going on about how [her mentor] had it right about politics.”
Mary Gallagher met May when both were studying political science as undergraduates.
“We both went on Harry Wray’s Washington D.C. trip and the rest is history,” Gallagher said.
Although the two fell out of contact for several years when May went on to get her doctorate in Madison, they found their way back to each other in the ’90s when May began teaching at DePaul and Gallagher was practicing politics.
Gallagher recalled one of her fondest memories with May being a time before they went out for the night.
“A neighbor was harassing me about my tenant putting newspapers in his recycling can,” Gallagher said. “He dumped all the recycling outside my garage. I was crying, Cathy went after him, and next thing you know he was cleaning the recycling that he dumped and we were off, laughing.”
Outside of the classroom, May was known for her free-spirited ways that touched the lives of everyone that knew her.
“She was always up, always excited, always talking, always interested and always fun to be around,” Mezey said. “So it’s very difficult for those of us who know her so well to think of her as gone.”
Bennett recalled fond memories spent with his wife, Glen, and May on the deck of her Andersonville condominium, in which she dedicated her patio to planting and entertaining guests.
“I can think of so many evenings that Glen and I spent with Cathy up there,” Bennett said. “And, you know, it’s the sort of thing in which you never imagined that it’s going to come to an end.”
Bennett said he still hasn’t processed her passing.
“What I have told a number of people is that when you lose someone like that, at least in my case, the first reaction you have is disbelief,” Bennett said. “You know, how could this person, not be with you any longer. And, you know, that’s where I am with this right now. It’s just utter disbelief that she could be taken and taken so quickly.”
All look back on May as someone who put others first, be that her students, colleagues or friends.
“She was a pure Vincentian, not that she would say that,” Gallagher said. “She left her mark on all of us who had the pleasure of knowing her. I miss her.”