BLACKSBURG, Va., May 1, 2009 — Joe May, of Leesburg, Va., who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering (EE) from Virginia Tech in 1962, is a 2009 inductee into Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Academy of Engineering Excellence, joining an elite group of 90 individuals out of more than 50,000 living engineering alumni.
From left to right are: Jim Thorp, head of Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Joe T. May, and Richard C. Benson, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.
This Academy of Engineering Excellence honors the truly exceptional among its tens of thousands of alumni, according to F. William Stephenson, past dean of the college of engineering who created the Academy in 1999.
May was born in 1937 in the community of Coote’s Store. He increased the town’s population to a burgeoning 39 when it welcomed Joseph Turner May into the world as a sixth generation Virginian. Born on his parents’ 300-acre farm on the north end of Rockingham County, Joe humbly entered the world as the oldest son among six siblings.
Amenities in the community were stark. A two-room school house welcomed some three dozen first through seventh grade youngsters each day, but without the luxury of electricity or running water. By the time Joe reached the sixth grade, he would serve as the handyman’s apprentice, helping to install electric wiring in the Orebaugh Grade School. “I guess they were hard pressed for help,” he laughs today.
In fifth grade, his mother was his school teacher, and later when Joe was first elected to public office, she would tell a Washington Post reporter her son “was quite a handful.” He displayed much curiosity early in life, helping his sister Lois with her high school chemistry while he was still in sixth grade, but as he followed her into Broadway High School, he says he “did not distinguish” himself academically.
Consequently, after graduation he enlisted in the Army, and spent three years, all stateside, including a year of electronics school. Afterwards he was assigned to a guided missile outfit in Alabama, giving him an insight into the workings of German-born scientist Wernher von Braun who became an American citizen, and is often considered the premier rocket engineer of the 20th Century. His Army stint also took him to Cape Canaveral, Fl., and these experiences guided May’s career choice of engineering.
In 1958, he entered Virginia Tech, “one of the turning points of my life,” he says. His poor academic record in high school haunted him and his admittance was “conditional”, but he set out to prove it wasn’t a fluke that he taught his sister chemistry before he was a teenager. To offset expenses, he became a resident counselor in the dormitory, earning some two-thirds of his room, board and tuition of $735 a year. He also served on the University’s Honor Court. In 1962, he was awarded his degree in electrical engineering, and he was off to a career that would eventually have him labeled as the “Thomas Jefferson of the Virginia General Assembly.”
Companies were hiring in the early 1960s and May eventually settled in on E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company in Wilmington, Del. The recruiter lured him to the First State, and home of one of the world’s largest chemical companies, by suggesting that he could visit his fiancée, Bobby, while he was interviewing. The recruiter’s premonition was correct, and he stayed for more than six years, earning his first three patents, the best known of which is the instrument for measuring octane on gasoline pumps.
Virginia’s native son decided in 1968 that it was time to return to the Commonwealth, and moved into an employment opportunity that he describes as “a cultural shock but extremely valuable to his career.” He switched into a sales position, selling equipment for Electronic Marketing Associates. “Through selling, I learned to assess people and what motivated them,” he says.
After two years, he seized the opportunity to help found an engineering and research firm, Ensco, Inc., still in business today as a leading provider of technology solutions, especially in regard to security issues, located in Springfield, Va. While at Ensco, he added two more inventions to his collection, the Sigma Signer or a signature reproduction machine still in use today, and an instrument to measure the curvature of railroad tracks, which remains a standard in the railroad industry.
The latter patent provided May with tremendous satisfaction. On what he describes as “a hot miserable July day in Burke, Va.,” when he was part of a survey team running a string line and “performing thousands of deep knee bends,” he decided there had to be a better way to collect the data. His imagination resulted in a new measuring instrument that allowed future survey teams to cover some 500 miles of railroad track in a day as opposed to previous two miles per day by string.
In the back of his mind as he continued knocking on and opening doors, he knew he was headed towards starting his own business. In 1977, May opened the doors of Electronic Instrumentation and Technology (EIT) located in Sterling, Va.
With an $83,000 contract from DuPont, May, his wife, and a professional friend started EIT on the kitchen table. Reminiscing about the early days, he laughs, saying his wife often had to put the clients on hold to tend to a hot iron, as she alternated the company’s administrative duties with the household chores. Because he had a solid retainer from another client he had intended to be an absentee owner, but within six months, he knew he faced a choice of making EIT a real business or a sideline. The Mays opted for the long-range option, and today they own a $40 million a year company with additional facilities near Danville, Va. Mr. May continues as the chief executive officer of the 200 plus employee company and conducts business in some 30 countries worldwide. And just to maintain his engineering credentials he took and passed the Professional Engineer’s Exam for electrical engineering in 1997.
In 1993, May ran his first successful campaign for elected office, joining the Virginia House of Delegates as the representative of Clarke and part of Loudoun Counties. He is currently in his eighth consecutive term, and in most of his re-elections, he has run unopposed. But he is known for going door-to-door, and even competing in the tractor driving events and cow-milking contests at the local fairs. He is the current chair of the House Transportation Committee, the past chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, and retains his membership on it. He is also a member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairs the Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS).
In 1996 he was honored as the recipient of Virginia’s “Lifetime Achievement Award in Industry.” In 2000, Mr. May received the Governor’s Legislative Leadership Award in Technology, followed by the Greater Washington Area “Engineer of the Year” award in 2001. In 2002 he was named the Virginia Biotechnology Legislator of the Year. When former Michigan Governor John Engler met Delegate May, he pronounced that the electrical engineer had more patents than anyone in the General Assembly since Thomas Jefferson, lending to his stellar reputation as the resident technology expert in the Virginia General Assembly. Mr. May has 22 patents to his name today and is still filing.
At Virginia Tech, Delegate May received the 2005 College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus Award. He and Bobby have endowed a scholarship in electrical and computer engineering. “At Virginia Tech, I learned a great number of the lessons I needed to succeed. I never worked harder, and I competed for grades. In the summers, I interned at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I felt competitive with the interns from other schools like Georgia Tech and MIT. Virginia Tech’s engineering program is as good a balance as one can get. It’s pretty darned practical and a true learning experience,” May reflects.