From Farm to Stage
Storytelling has been a journey for Harvard’s Jim May, farm boy and former educator who found his passion telling stories.
Jim May never dreamed of becoming a nationally known storyteller. In fact, he wouldn’t discover this passion until he was 32 years old.
May grew up on a farm near Spring Grove from 1947-1954, the son of a tenant farmer. His family moved from farm to farm every couple of years. One place was on the Nippersink Creek, the others close by and in the watershed. He remembers living on three different farms until his family quit the business and moved to Spring Grove when he was 8 years old.
“I think that tenant farmer stigma has shadowed me, and made my buying a little 30-acre ‘farm’ in Alden some kind of playing out of a family destiny or a good example of what Jung would have called ‘letting your shadow run your life,’” he said.
Becoming a storyteller was not a straight path for May. It was more like the heroic journeys taken by the Knights of the Round Table, always searching and often re-turning to their roots.
After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in history and political science, he taught at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in Crystal Lake and at Northwood Elementary School in Woodstock.
In the early ’70s, he was praised by Northwood’s principal Sally Ronen for his creativity. She told him that he would be considered a successful teacher “if every child was on a different page of his math book at the end of the year” — meaning he was meeting the individualized needs of each student in his class, not marching lock step through the text.
But Jim wanted to pursue a career in law, have power, be visible and write like F. Lee Bailey or John Steinbeck, so he headed for California where he found a small apartment with a scenic view of the mountains. He was soon overwhelmed at the University of San Diego School of Law, where he was supposed to write briefs — no creativity requested or allowed.
One day, while looking out his window, he saw a red-winged blackbird, which he felt symbolized destiny, and declared, “If I’m meant to be a writer, I need to move back to the Midwest.” The only writing he had done to that point consisted of briefs and an entry in a seventh grade Knights of Columbus writing contest where he won second place.
Hooked on Storytelling
With this newfound sense of purpose, he returned to Woodstock and taught fifth grade at Clay Street School for six years. During spring vacation in 1979, he was drawn to Jonesborough, Tenn., the oldest town in the state, for its annual storytelling festival. On a whim, he and a friend went to “learn lots of stories to tell their kids.” That trip changed his life forever.
At the Jonesborough National Storytelling Festival, storytellers from across the country were housed in tents, like old-time church revivalists. May was fascinated with both the characters and the cobblestone streets. The experience reminded him of grow-ing up in the little town of Spring Grove where his dad and uncle shared stories with their farmer friends, customers and family. Jim also recalled many Bible stories he had learned as a young Catholic lad — ancient stories that had been told orally long before they were written down.
When he returned to his fifth grade class after spring break, he told a story about Jack going to town to sell a cow and all of the problems the boy encountered. What May knows for sure is that his students found him “a lot more interesting after his return from Jonesborough than he had been before he took the trip.” He observed the roles of teacher and student drop away; they were all just fellow travelers on the road with Jack. When he was asked to tell another story, he couldn’t. He only knew that one.
By the time May began a storytelling career, he had moved from elementary school teacher to counselor at McHenry County College (MCC). By chance, he was filmed by a WTTW Chicago producer and won a Chicago Emmy for a story about his father, “A Bell for Shorty.” The story entertains and explains May’s place in his family: “My father was 51 years old when I was born; my mother was 42. They were devout Roman Catholics and I was a ‘rhythm baby.’ My mother used to say that all Catholics were preoccupied with two things, rhythm and bingo, and if the rhythm didn’t work, bin-go!” He was that bingo.
Jim discovered quickly that a modicum of fame and an Emmy did not make him a rich man. Few dedicated storytellers ever are.
During several leaves of absence from MCC, Jim learned to love the international storytelling community. In 1987, he resigned from the college and began telling stories full time. For more than 30 years, he has traveled extensively throughout the United States with occasional trips to Europe, telling stories, for the most part, designed for family audiences. For 25 years, he championed the Illinois Storytelling Festival in Spring Grove, where an adult tent appeared. In that venue, Tuskegee airmen, Vietnam War veterans and Jewish Holocaust survivors shared heartbreaking stories in their own words.
Now, he spends 80 percent of his time in schools where he fulfills Common Core standards, such as listening, predicting outcomes or creating images while spinning his yarns. He serves residencies at Geneva Middle School North and South, and Jefferson School in Harvard, and has spent a lot of time at Dean Street Elementary in Woodstock, where fourth grader Lilli Janiga said, “Mr. May tells really funny and, sometimes, really, really scary stories!”
Although May says he wants to grow as a writer, he doesn’t think he could ever give up telling stories to children.
When he is not on the road, Jim lives with his wife, graphic artist Nan Seidler, in a house constructed of timbers from a small barn originally built in the 1840s. The tim-bers, hand-hewn from single-span fir, spruce and white pine, form a big house — big enough to host workshops for aspiring storytellers. He spends a lot of time in the fall chopping wood for the old wood-burning stove that helps heat the space in the winter.
If you’re with Jim May long enough, he becomes contemplative: “My dad Shorty May taught me to listen to the land and to its people,” he’ll say, “and sometimes when I’m searching my memories, I can still hear the tractor coming.”