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Naming Las Vegas: Ernest May Elementary School

A police officer who became the first Las Vegas policeman killed in the line of duty is the namesake of a school that continues to commemorate the lives of fallen heroes.

May Elementary School, 6350 W. Washburn Road, was named for Ernest James May in honor of his service to Las Vegas.

“He was a wonderful father,” said Anita Lewis, May’s oldest daughter. “When he died, I died a little bit myself. I’m 95 years old, and I still remember it like it was yesterday. There’s been nobody like him since.”

May was born on Aug. 20, 1895, in Marysvale, Utah. He was the third child born to Rosetta and William May.

His father was a miner who died from black lung ailment. Shortly after, in the 1900s, Rosetta moved the family to Las Vegas.

May married Mamie Bundy in 1917, and they had seven children. He joined the Metropolitan Police Department between the late ’20s and early ’30s.

During that time, the city possessed two police cars, and members of the police department could be counted on one hand, according to lvmpd.com.

“Las Vegas, in those days, was part of the Wild West,” said Virgil David Downer, May’s grandson. “Everyone had a gun, and people could get (carried away) while drinking.”

On Feb. 10, 1929, May was shot in the arm while apprehending four burglars in Woodward’s Garage, according to his daughter, Daisy May Downer, who wrote his biography.

After the incident, Bundy urged May to seek a safer job, so he left the police department and joined the U.S. government as a Deputy U.S. Marshal.

After three months, May returned to Metro, where he resumed his duty as a policeman.

On June 8, 1933, May responded to a shooting call at a local hotel. The callers had said that motel proprietor William Henry Clark was drunk and shooting “wildly” at the Clark Auto Court on South Fifth Street.

His brother, Joe May, city constable and the first law enforcement officer in the Las Vegas area, found the motel proprietor and May dead.

Metro’s website says May was still clutching his warm revolver when he was found. The website also states that it appeared May had pulled his police car into the auto court, and as he climbed from the car, he was shot in the right breast by the motel proprietor.

Although mortally wounded, May emptied his revolver at his assassin, striking him three times.

Both men died before help could reach them. It was later learned that Clark had been drinking heavily during the day and had made statements that he would kill the first officer to stop there.

May died at 38, leaving a widow and seven children ranging in ages from 15 years to 6 weeks.

“I remember that night. There was a big moon coming over Sunrise Mountain,” Lewis said. “I was 15 years old when my dad was shot. My mother had a 6-week-old baby in her arms. When Joe told us what happened, she fell to the floor. I couldn’t believe it. He was a wonderful father and provider.”

Lewis and her sisters Daisy and Rose recommended that May Elementary be named for their father. The Clark County Board of School Trustees approved it on July 14, 1988, and the school opened in 1991.

May Elementary principal Bridget Leatherman said she hopes to preserve his legacy through the recent addition of a memorial wall for the fallen police officers of Las Vegas.

“We hope this wall helps students remember who were the first heroes of Las Vegas who put their life on the line,” Leatherman said. “The school has a community of strong staff members. Teachers continue to make a positive impact on our school, just like May.”

In May, Leatherman plans to create a May Day, which will honor May and other law enforcement officers in the community.

May’s legacy also continues to be passed down to family members.

“He has always held a position of high rank within our family. All of us grandkids felt proud of him,” said Downer. “He leaves a legacy of a pioneer. He helped bring peace to a wild area.”

Contact North Las Vegas and Centennial View reporter Sandy Lopez at slopez@viewnews.com or 702-383-4686.

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