It's quite possible that all Utah schoolchildren know Dean L. May's face.
They would have seen him gazing calmly into a camera lens from Promontory Point, explaining the transcontinental railroad, or by Anasazi ruins, talking about American Indian traditions, or visiting the state's ghost towns and cotton mills, cities and valleys. His 20-part video series, "A People's History of Utah," has been in perpetual reruns in public schools since he created it in the 1980s.
May, a University of Utah history professor who wrote and published extensively on the social history of the American West, died late Tuesday at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, four days after suffering a heart attack.
The series is a fitting legacy. After all, Utah was his passion and storytelling his craft.
"Dean's was an artful life in which history and honesty were very important," his wife, Cheryl May, said Wednesday. "His great gift is that he truly enjoyed every different person and cared about their stories."
Besides the video series, the 65-year-old scholar wrote several groundbreaking books, beginning with Building the City of God, Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons, co-authored with Leonard J. Arrington and Feramorz Y. Fox, which laid out the economic and social development of Utah's Mormon community.
His final book, Three Frontiers: Family, Land, and Society in the American West: 1850-1900, compared pioneers in Idaho, Utah and Washington.
"It's one of the most outstanding books ever written on the American West," said Indiana historian Jan Shipps, who specializes in Mormon history. "It allowed us to see the difference in the way the West was settled. And it's so powerfully documented that it doesn't date itself."
During the summer of 2001, May crossed the North Sea and the Atlantic on the Christian Radich, a full-rigged sailing vessel reenacting the Mormon passage from Europe to the United States. He taught immigration history to his fellow passengers and served as a member of the ship's crew.
Last year, he described his seafaring adventures in a presidential address to the Mormon History Association.
Many historians have looked at the history of the Mormon migration by wagon and handcart as essential to the formation of LDS identity. May added a new element -- the voyage that helped prepare European converts for the rigors of life in Zion.
But May's influence and enthusiasms went well beyond scholarship.
He was an involved father of sons Timothy and Thaddeus and daughter Caroline, using even basketball (a sport he didn't particularly like) to teach diligence, duty and love.
Gardening was another.
Drawing on his Wyoming farm boy roots, May planted onions, carrots, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables in his suburban back yard.
"Every year brought a different degree of success," Thaddeus May recalled. "What remained the same was the gardener."
He liked to create rituals to mark time and events, said Cheryl May. On his 50th birthday, he declared it a "jubilee year" to reflect, repent, offer forgiveness and celebrate.
He was just born friendly, the family said. He would talk to anyone.
"I grew up thinking of the world as a place full of friends," Thaddeus May said. "He mentored countless students and at times took them into our family."
That extended to the university community, where May hosted a weekly "history table" at the student union.
He would take a chair and then invite students, staff and faculty members to talk with him about history, politics, current events or anything else they wanted.
May was the U.'s ambassador to the community, said Robert Goldberg, a colleague in the history department.
"Dean was never an academic living in an ivory tower," Goldberg said. "He smelled, felt and tasted the history of this state."
And that attachment went well beyond members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"He was not just a Mormon and not just a Utahn," Goldberg said. "Dean could reach into other people's lives and cultures and be one with them."
May's funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the LDS Sugar House Stake Center, 1621 S. 1100 East in Salt Lake City.
MHA President (2001-2002)
Professor of History
University of Utah
211 Carlson Hall
Dean L. May is a Professor of History at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and has taught as Fulbright guest Professor at the University of Bonn, Germany and Ain Shams University in Cairo. He is a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society, has served as chairman of the Utah Board of State History, is past editor of the Journal of Mormon History, and president-elect of the Mormon History Association.
He was a contributor to the FDR Encyclopedia and The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, and has published extensively on the social history of the American West. He is author or co-author of books on New Deal economic and social policy during the late 1930s, on communal life and values among the Latter-day Saints, and on Utah history. He has written and produced two major video series on Utah history and folkways, A Peoples's History of Utah (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Instructional Media Services, 1981-88), 20 half-hour programs; and Utah Remembers (Salt Lake City, KJZZ, Channel 14, 1986), seven forty-five-minute programs. In 1996 he was historical consultant to the Utah Centennial Commission in planning for the state's centennial celebrations. Publications include the following:
With Maris A. Vinovskis, "A Ray of Millennial Light: Early Education and Social Reform in the Infant School Movement in Massachusetts, 1826-40," in Maris A. Vinovskis, Education, Society and Economic Opportunity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 17-44.
With Jan Shipps and Cheryll L. May, "Sugar House Ward: A Latter-day Saint Congregation," in James P. Wind and James W. Lewis, eds., American Congregations, Vol I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 293-348. Winner of the T. Edgar Lyon Award for Excellence from the Mormon History Association, 1995.
Three Frontiers: Family, Land, and Society in the American West: 1850-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994). Winner of the Best Book Award, 1995 from the Mormon History Association.
Utah: A People's History (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987). Now in its 3rd printing.
With Leonard J. Arrington and Feramorz Y. Fox, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons, 2nd ed. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
"Body And Soul: The Record of Mormon Religious Philanthropy," Church History (September, 1988): 322-336.
From New Deal to New Economics: the American Liberal Response to the Recession of 1937 (New York: Garland Press, 1981).
Dean L May, professor of history at the University of Utah, will be the featured guest lecturer 7 p.m. Wednesday in the St. George Tabernacle.
The program, "St. George and the Dixieites," focuses on George A. Smith as father of the southern settlements. The presentation is part of the 20th annual Juanita Brooks Memorial Lecture.
May taught as a Fulbright guest professor at the University of Bonn in Germany and at Am Shams University in Cairo. He is a Fellow of the Utah State Historical society, has served as chairman of the Utah Board of State History, is past editor of the Journal of Mormon History, and is the past president of the Mormon History Association. On several occasions, he has received awards for teaching excellence.
May was a contributor to the FDR Encyclopedia and The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups and has published extensively on the social history of the American West. He is an author or co-author of books on New Deal economic and social policy during the late 1930s, on communal life and values among the Latter-day Saints and on Utah History.
He has written and produced two video series on Utah History and folkways. "A People's History of Utah" is a series of 20 half-hour programs and "Utah Remembers" consists of seven 45-minute programs. In 1996 he was the historical consultant to the Utah Centennial Commission in planning for the state's centennial celebrations.
May was honored as a "Pioneer of Progress in Historic and Cultural Arts" by the Days of 47 Celebration Committee for the State of Utah in 2002.