About Our Founder
Bill "Big Cheese" May III
December 6, 1957 - December 3, 2016
In 2012, Bill May and Steve Cavanaugh joined forces to build a Connecticut Chapter of the successful House of Heroes veteran charity organization. Together, with the help of family and friends, Steve and Bill envisioned an expansion of House of Heroes nation-wide with the Connecticut Chapter setting the standard for new chapter development.
A Man for All Seasons
Bill May’s Infectious Optimism, Uncompromising Values and Dedication to Service Inspired a Movement that is Changing Lives.
Bill May liked to tell anyone who would listen about the philosophy of well-known retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, who had a unique way of dealing with adversity, one that resonated with Bill. As Bill told the story Willink, an Iraq War veteran and SEAL Team Commander who earned the Bronze and Silver Stars, would frequently encounter subordinates lamenting bad news, a personal problem or a seemingly insurmountable setback.
“They’d come up to him and say ‘I didn’t get promoted’ and Jocko would say ‘well, good. That will give you an opportunity to prove yourself for the next promotion board,’” Bill would recall. “The mission got cancelled? ‘Well, good,’ Jocko would respond, ‘that gives you the chance to go out and plan the next mission better so that we can succeed.’
“The whole idea of Jocko’s leadership style was that when something bad occurs, there's always something good that can come of it,” Bill would conclude. “It struck me, as this was how I tried to shape my Army leadership style, as well.”
Bill’s affection for this story, and reflections on how best to deal with adversity, will surprise few who knew him, particularly in recent years as he valiantly battled cancer before losing that battle on December 3, 2016. The manner in which Bill May took on the challenge of his life was a microcosm of a life lived with eternal optimism, confidence, good humor and selflessness, a life that profoundly impacted others and – in House of Heroes Connecticut – left a legacy that will carry on for years to come.
“Bill May was a humanitarian, always was,” says his good friend and colleague Ron Kwalek. “Anytime anyone needed any help for a cause, Bill was ready to serve. He was the kind of guy you wanted to be around all the time. His energy, his knack for innovation, ability to gather people together and motivate them was, well, just incredible.
“You couldn’t help but want to be on Bill’s team.”
William J. “Bill” May III was born in Newark, Delaware in 1957, the only child of William J. May, Jr. and Mary Eastburn May. It was while attending the University of Delaware in the late ‘70s that Bill enlisted in ROTC leadership training, setting the foundation for a life of service. Upon graduation, Bill’s 24-year career in the Army began in earnest as he was selected for flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. He spent three years as a maintenance officer and test pilot in Germany, then came back to the States to serve as Director of Combat Development at the Aviation Logistic School at Fort Eustis, Virginia. In that role he was specifically responsible for developing the requirements of future Army aircraft.
Bill left active duty and joined Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut in 1985, the same year he joined the Connecticut National Guard. Over the next two decades, Bill would become dually qualified as a Black Hawk test pilot for the Connecticut National Guard, and play an integral role in the growth cycle of Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk. During his tenure at Sikorsky, where Bill spearheaded government business development, he contributed to and led efforts that resulted in a doubling of the original Black Hawk government requirement and the complete modernization of the U.S. Army National Guard helicopter fleet. Bill was proud to say that during this remarkable run with both Sikorsky and the U.S. Army, he was able to “apply the best practices of each for the benefit of both.”
The list of Bill’s accomplishments is long, but it was his graduation from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C., in 2000 that inspired him to continue a life of service long after leaving the military.
“That experience changed his life,” says Bill’s wife Carol, who met Bill in college and, along with Bill, raised a family of three, including son Bill IV and daughters Kelley and Kaitlin, over the course of a marriage lasting 36 years. “Bill always felt that there was something more he needed to do, some kind of help he could provide to veterans.”
The answer came one day in 2012 when Bill’s good friend, Steve Cavanaugh, founder and president of Biltmore Construction in Hamden,CT came calling.“I had a little tap on my shoulder, something I had experienced before, telling me it was time to use my talent as a craftsman to help others,” says Steve. “I just knew I had to call my friend Bill. Knowing the kind of guy Bill was, I knew he would be interested in anything having to do with giving back.”
The two founded the Connecticut Chapter of House of Heroes in 2012, and the rest is history. Carol and the two families became core support “staff.” Bill’s aunt in Delaware, Kathy Eastburn, a Delaware Air National Guard Brigadier General who had recently retired after 36 years of service, was recruited to serve as executive director. While Steve enlisted fellow volunteer craftsmen and managed jobs, Bill handled the big picture, marketing and branding the organization, raising awareness, nurturing community and corporate support and setting the stage for organizational growth.
Since 2012, House of Heroes Connecticut has provided home renovations to more than 100 military and public safety veterans and their surviving spouses. Bill was also chairman of the Georgia-based national organization, which has served more than 1,000 since its founding in 2000.
It was Bill’s ability to inspire others to serve alongside him that so many remember.
“The wheels in Bill’s mind were always turning,” says Kathy Eastburn. “Whatever goal we had reached was never enough because he recognized the number of veterans out there in need. He always had his arms wide, pulling more people into the fold.
“That’s what he was best at.”
“I think the thing that was so striking about Bill is that when he got excited about something, he got you excited about it, too,” says friend, colleague and videographer Mark Stevenson. ”People got swept up in the wake of his positivity. Bill was a master at getting people to do what he wanted.”Bill was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in November, 2014. But true to his nature and outlook on life, he took on the challenge with gusto and positivity.“The temptation for people going through something like that is to give up on life, to close the book on service and significance,” says the founder of House of Heroes National, Wayne Anthony. “Bill May represented a unique kind of person. He could have said I’m through, but instead he made an incredible attempt to stay in the game.
“Bill May laid down his life for this cause. His gift to us was not only his service to others, but that he inspired others to serve, as well.”
Added Kathy, “Bill never, ever lacked for confidence. He was determined he was going to win the cancer challenge, and he stepped up his sense of urgency to get things done.
“Bill used to put his own twist on the saying, ‘he who has the most toys wins,’ by saying, ‘he who has the most friends wins,” Kathy continues. “Well, he won that one, because he had hundreds and hundreds of friends. At the end, though, I think he must have changed it again to ‘he who gives the most back wins.’ That was the mission he carried on with him to the end of his life.”
The last week of Bill’s life epitomized his perseverance. On Sunday, November 27, 2016, his last day in his home on Cobblestone Drive in Hamden, he held a meeting of family and HOHCT team members around his kitchen table to, as Carol says, “make sure we were all on the right track, that we knew our marching orders moving forward, and that his vision for House of Heroes wouldn’t die.” Knowing he was heading the next morning to Hospice in Branford, Bill spoke remarkably of the prospect of establishing a “satellite office” there.
Others go to Hospice to die. Bill May was going there to work.
At the Army Aviation Association of America Summit in Atlanta in April, 2016 Bill, knowing full well deep down inside that his time in this life was limited, was in full House of Heroes mode, rallying AAAA chapters to join in on his “Operation HOHAAAA” national service challenge, promoting House of Heroes’ partnership with Stanley Tools and its Build Your America project, and spreading the HOH gospel of honoring service with service.
Sitting so appropriately in the belly of a Black Hawk helicopter on the Georgia World Conference Center convention floor, he reflected on his life, his service and the challenge he faced.
“What drives me is the need to go out and help others. I've served my entire life, in one way or another. I view this cancer challenge as a unique opportunity to gain strength from others, to inspire others and have them inspire me,” he said. “It's given me the strength to get up every day, reload and re-engage, to go out on the constant battle every day to fight cancer, to go out and inspire others to face whatever challenges they may be having in their daily lives. I draw inspiration from those who gather around me, those that I meet, those that we are able to help. It's truly been the best year of my life.
“We're all time limited on this earth. Some of us have a more definitive schedule than others, but that shouldn't stop any of us from reaching out to others when we can, to the person that's standing right next to us, to give them help, give them a hand, give them a leg up.
“If everyone would co-operate in that type of thinking, the world would be a lot better place.”