Photo: Philip May (left) out exploring for lichen.
Phillip F. May was a teacher, educator and investor while living in Belmont. However, his passion for more than a quarter century revolved around exploring the world for that strange composite organism in which fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with algae.
May was that very rare breed: he hunted lichen; on walls, trees, rocks, forest and dales around the globe.
While May, who died last year at 68 after living in Santa Fe, New Mexico for many years, is best remembered among his fellow lichenists, he will soon have a place in the hearts of the patrons of the Belmont Public Library. In his will, May set aside $212,500 to the Belmont Public Library, the second largest gift in the library’s long history. Only an endowment created by Jane Gray Dustan for educational and enrichment children programming is more significant.
“We are very grateful to Mr. May and his family,” said Belmont Library Director Peter Struzziero, who plans to reach out to the family and “give them a proper thanks.”
“There are some restrictions on how the money can be used that’s in the letter from the attorney settling the estate,” said Gail Mann of the Board of Library Trustees, who will determine how the funds will be allocated.
The amount May provided to the library was approximately five percent of his estate, one of many charitable institutions he provided for which totaled nearly his entire estate.
The gift was a complete surprise as no one in town government or library officials ever met or had contact with May or his wife, Anne. According to town records, May lived on Chester Road for nearly 20 years before moving to Stults Road in the late 1990s. His final address in Belmont was on S. Cottage Road. May is a bit of a mystery as information about this life outside of being a prominent lichenologist is sketchy; there are no life details online nor is there an obituary locally or from New Mexico.
But May’s legacy is secured by the scholarly work as one of the few lichenologists in the world. According to a remembrance written last year in the Friends of the Farlow newsletter (he was the group’s long-time treasurer), he became enthralled with the field of fungi after taking a course at the Harvard Extension School, before focusing on collecting and publishing extensively on the subject.
Long associated with Harvard’s Farlow Reference Library and Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany, May built a reputation as a keen observer and active explorer – you can read his witty account of lichen hunting in French Guiana. He also sought to assist those newly interested in the field as co-author to a general reference guide entitled “Identifying North American Lichens: A Guide to the Literature.” When he could no longer head out into the field, he generously gave his extensive collection of specimens, research equipment and materials to the Farlow to be handed down to the next generation of explorers.
Late in his career, May was honored by having a species named after him, Parmelia mayi, which can be found in the northern Appalachian mountains.
“If others are interested in town leaving money in their will or making the town a beneficiary … as it’s a great way to give back to the town,” said Adam Dash, Selectmen chair.
“Particularly if it’s to the library,” said Struzziero.