William May was arguably the greatest athlete to come through Rochelle High School. In the area of track, there is no argument. Possibly someday he may be inducted into the High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
For May, life was not always easy. But he managed to persevere and even thrive. Born in 1887, he was one of two sons born to Henry and Ida May. When William was three, his father died from pneumonia.
This left Ida to raise her two boys on her own. Like so many single mothers in the movies, Ida did seamstress work and taught Sunday school at the Presbyterian Church.
The only difference was that for Ida and her boys this was not a movie, it was their life. And they rose above their situation.
William made his first mark on local track when he won the 50-yard dash at the Tri-County track meet in 1902, his first year on the Rochelle track team.
By the 1904-1905 track season, William qualified for the Illinois State Championships. Not only did he qualify, he won the 50-yard dash tying the world record as a high school student.
William became the first state champion in any sport to represent Rochelle High School. This was at a time when local track events were held on a horse track on the south side of town.
William graduated and moved on to the University of Illinois. At U of I, William ran the 100 and 220-yard races. He lettered all four years and became the first Rochelle athlete to win a Big Ten championship in 1907-1908. taking first in the 100 and second in the 220.
In 1908, William had the honor of being captain of the U of I track team. While still a student at the university, William became a member of the 1908 Olympic Team.
William represented the United States in the 100-meter and the 220-meter races at the London Olympics. Although he did not medal, he is the only local athlete to have qualified for the Olympics. He later ran for the California Athletic Association and in 1909 tied the world record for the 220.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in business, May became a manager at Montgomery Ward’s in Chicago. But he was still not done. He enlisted in 1917 and became a 1st Lt. in light field artillery. He served on the border in the conflict with Mexico and stayed on to serve as a trainer for many of our soldiers at Camp Grant.
There you have it. State champion, Big Ten champion, olympian and volunteer soldier. Perhaps this is the year that William “Willie” May will be accepted into the Rochelle Township High School Hall of Fame.
Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum Historian and Rochelle City Councilman.