May Smith – U.S. EPA worker and longtime federal employee

March 2011

May Smith

Reaching Every Goal

By Caroline Cox

May Smith has seen 13 different presidents take office – and that’s just since she began working with the federal government. The 85-year-old mother of five started in 1944 and worked her way up, eventually becoming the head of public administration improvements in federal agencies across the country and in her current role as semi-retired while being coordinator for the Wetlands Outreach Program for the U.S. EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region.

Smith has spearheaded such projects as a computerized travel system for HUD employees to relocation allowances for dependent elderly parents of federal employees. She’s received a lifetime achievement award from the American Biographical Institute as well as the highest award for a federal employee. She feels her greatest accomplishment, however, was writing an award-winning thesis on minority women in the workplace, the first of its kind, in 1954.

Here, Smith talks to PINK about overcoming discrimination, her biggest weakness as a leader and how she plans to achieve her next – and she says “last” – big goal.

PINK: What’s the secret to your success?

May Smith: I was raised by my grandmother [Emma] while my mother worked, so she was constantly teaching me do’s and don’ts. She taught me to never set a goal I knew I couldn’t reach.
Then, in high school, I had a business teacher named Jimmie D. Richardson. She had six people in her class whom she knew had the smarts to graduate and achieve success but didn’t have the money. If she had a big workload one week, she’d have those six students help her complete assignments, and I was one of those people. She gave us all kinds of duties to perform and always let other teachers know that we were the ones who completed the assignment. To this day, at 85 years old, I always think of her when I have an assignment to do.

PINK: Did you stay in touch with Mrs. Richardson after you graduated from high school?

MS: Always. And I keep in touch with her family to this day, because Mrs. Richardson has passed on. I kept in touch with her as long as I could. She was always checking with other teachers to say, “How is May doing?” and “Where is she now?”

May Smith

PINK: So she played an integral role in your success.

MS: She was responsible for me being in the federal government. She made arrangements for the civil service commission to give us a test so we could get a job with the government. I made the highest grade – 98.5.

PINK: You’ve been with the federal government since 1944. What was your first government job?

MS: Typing and shorthand, because that’s what Mrs. Richardson had us doing in school. She thought we should continue with it, because we could end up with a good career even if we didn’t have the opportunity to go to college.

PINK: What was your budget when you first started compared to what it is now?

MS: I really don’t want to talk about that, because of… a lot of jealousy. People always think they’re better and can do it better than other people. They don’t know that being the best isn’t about being better than someone else – it’s a goal you set for yourself. It’s about improving, not being perfect or comparing yourself to others.

PINK: What do you think working women today need to master to be successful?

MS: They need to understand they’re going into the workplace to work. They’re not going to visit. And there’s no place for jealousy – you leave that out of the workplace.

PINK: After more than 65 years in the workforce, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen from women?

MS: Women have more responsibilities now then they did when I first started out. Sometimes you have to overstep your boundaries, put in more time, work late hours and on top of that [many women] have a family at home to take care of. The challenges women had when I was growing up are still there, but there are more of them now. I think it’s much harder for women now.

 May Smith

Smith as the Supervisor Accounting Technician at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development circa 1982


PINK: Tell me about your upbringing.

MS: I started from a poor family. My mother cleaned houses for Caucasian families and my grandmother stayed at home to take care of us – she cleaned the house, fed us and took us to church. That steered [my siblings and me] in the right direction to not getting off track. My grandmother was a strong role model for me.

PINK: What’s your leadership style?

MS: Being on time, setting goals and making sure they are reachable. When I first started working, in the ‘40s, we had around 20 to 30 women working together. I was the person who set the goals for us to reach, and we would always help each other achieve them. There was no jealousy allowed – if we saw a person was falling behind, we’d get our brown bag lunches, sit in a room and help each other. We were trying to carry each person along with us.

PINK: What’s your biggest weakness as a leader?

MS: Always striving for perfection. There is no failure in my lifestyle. It was understood that we had to get this project done, stick together and do what’s expected of us.

PINK: What was your proudest moment?

MS: When I went back to school, finished and got my college degree. I was the mother of five children [Verdell, Pebble, Debbie, Kevin and Byron] and they were my priority, but I wanted to finish school. I decided I would still take care of my children and find time to go to college. Once I went back to school, my proudest moment was when I completed my thesis on minority professional women [in 1954]. It was the first thesis that has been done in this country [on the subject], and I accomplished it.

PINK: What are your best tips for maintaining Life/Work balance?

MS: I had to decide what was most important to me. First was being a mother. Next, I had to decide what kind of work I was going to do and how much time I was going to put into it. I knew I was going to be working fulltime because we weren’t wealthy people. I wanted to be a fulltime mother, but I also wanted them to have things.

PINK: How did you excel at work while being there for your children?

MS: My husband was very important in my life. He was always there to assist me with any of my duties. If I was returning from Hawaii or some other place, he was right there to pick me up at the airport, regardless of the hour. That worked out fine for us. He would cook, wash, take care of the kids and clean house while I was traveling.

PINK: What was your biggest career obstacle?

S: When I was a payroll person, there was a woman who would always come to my desk on payroll day to check everybody’s time sheets to see if I had computed them properly. They always had errors before I starting doing them, but mine never had any.
Whenever she would announce they were done correctly, she would preface it by saying, “You know, black people aren’t expected to be accurate.” That went on for at least six or nine months. Everyone would say, “May, how long are you going to take this? How long are you going to let her do that?” I said, “As long as it makes her feel good. I’m sure they won’t find any errors because I take pride in my work.” That was the biggest [obstacle] I can remember: being accused of not being as accurate as I should’ve been.

PINK: What do you do to relax and rejuvenate yourself?

MS: I go on cruises. I’ve made seven since I more or less retired. I have a group of women from Beta Pi Sigma, and every year, we’d go on a cruise around August or September. We went to Alaska in 2003, the year my husband died, and that was my last trip.

PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?

MS: I’m mixed Indian, but I don’t know much about [my Indian heritage]. The first time I saw my father was when I was 12, and the next and last time I saw him was when I graduated from high school. I asked my mother if I could visit him and she said yes, so she contacted him. My father, uncle and grandfather lived in Fort Worth, TX. My grandfather was full-blood Indian, and they all sat around the house and grunted with each other. I never did communicate with them like I expected to, so I just tried to observe them.

PINK: I read that your last goal is to obtain a doctorate. When do you plan to accomplish that?

MS: If my health is still good, I should get it in the next couple of years. That’s the last goal I’m setting for myself. I don’t make goals to not reach them, and I take pride in that.

PINK: What legacy do you want to leave?

MS: The piece I did on minority women is my legacy. Nobody had thought enough of minority women to do something knowledgeable like that. I have that to leave behind for future generations, and I’m pleased about that.

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