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Elizabeth May, at 103; inspiring economist, professor

Elizabeth May twice served as acting president at Wheaton College in Norton.
Elizabeth May twice served
as acting president at Wheaton College in Norton.
By Edgar J. Driscoll Jr. and Neal Riley
Globe Correspondents / April 4, 2011

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Elizabeth (Stoffregen) May was a professor of economics and dean of Wheaton College in Norton from 1949 to 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated her to the board of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, based in Washington, D.C. The first woman appointed to the bank’s board, she served as one of five directors from 1964 to 1969.

“Her work included representing the bank internationally, at times meeting with heads of state. Large parts of her work focused on developing countries,’’ according to a statement from her family.

Dr. May also served as an economic analyst with the Treasury Department and principal fiscal analyst with the Bureau of the Budget. While with the Treasury Department, she lectured to an 8 a.m. economics class at American University in Washington before beginning her regular workday.

And even while she was working at the office with tax estimates and business reports, she never stopped thinking of herself as a teacher. The “muscles’’ of both jobs, such as explaining and simplifying, are much the same, she pointed out.

Dr. May, a well-known educator and former acting president at Wheaton College, died at home in Harvard on March 27 after a long illness, her family said. She was 103.

The widow of attorney Geoffrey May, she had been actively associated with the American Association of University Women and was vice president, then president, of the International Federation of University Women from 1974 to 1977.

“She was a consistent supporter of the importance of higher education for women, and organizational support for female students, with special emphasis on students in developing countries,’’ her family said.

In Harvard, Dr. May chaired the Harvard Conservation Trust and was chairwoman of the town’s Long Range Planning Advisory Committee. The town honored her in 2000 as its “Citizen of Note.’’

Audrey Ball of Harvard said the timing of the award — around the millennium — reflected the respect that townspeople had for Dr. May as a forward-thinking conservationist.

“She was just highly respected in the town, and the town wanted to honor her. She was certainly the most gracious person I ever met, very humble but very competent.’’

Ball said they met when Dr. May moved to Harvard in the late 1970s, and both were active with the League of Women Voters.

At first, Dr. May’s stature was intimidating, Ball said, but she found her to be open and friendly. “I just had intense respect for her. She was a very, very involved person; always active in some committee or other, at every Town Meeting. Long-range planning and town planning were her special interests as far as the town was concerned.’’

Bruce Carhart, a nephew who lives in Washington, described Dr. May as a leader who was “able to connect with all sorts of people. In her career, she was able to follow through consistently on her goals related to international development and higher education for women. She was an amazing inspiration, not only for all of us in her family but for many others around the world.’’

His earliest memories were of her at family gatherings. “She was a personal inspiration to me. I talked to her for many years about all sorts of issues, and she never failed to give me thought-provoking feedback that I found incredibly useful. She mentored many students and others, something that was not in the public eye, and people appreciated what she had done for them.’’

That Dr. May was a “very accomplished woman’’ was reflected at her 100th birthday celebration in Harvard, where she received hundreds of greetings from around the world.

Another nephew, Carl Schellenberg of Gainesville, Va., said that at the celebration three years ago, Dr. May still had half of the bottle of ouzo, a popular liquor from Greece, that they had shared 45 years before over Bob Dylan songs. “It says to me that she was a leader and path-breaker. It all looks very elegant, but she was a wonderful, warm, fun-loving person.’’

He said she personified Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of a gentleman as a person comfortable with the top and bottom of society. “Aunt Betty fit that definition to a T. We loved her, enjoyed her, and respected her.’’

Elizabeth Stoffregen was born in St. Louis, Mo., on April 25, 1907, the daughter of Carl H. and Caroline (Stumpf) Stoffregen. She graduated from high school in Montclair, N.J., in 1924 and graduated with honors in 1928 from Smith College in Northampton, with a bachelor’s degree in economics. She received her doctorate in economics in 1931 from the London School of Economics. Those studies concluded with a year of study at Radcliffe College in Cambridge.

At the London school, she met her husband, a Harvard law school graduate and author who later worked for the Department of Labor. They wed in 1931.

From 1931 to 1939, Dr. May was an instructor, then assistant professor, and later associate professor of economics at Goucher College in Baltimore.

She was a budget analyst with the Treasury Department from 1939 to 1941, before going to the Bureau of the Budget in 1941. There, she served as fiscal analyst, senior fiscal analyst, principal fiscal analyst, and in the executive office of the bureau president until 1947, when she went to Greece with her husband, who was assigned as special assistant to the chief of the American Mission for Aid to Greece, as part of the Marshall Plan for European recovery after World War II. She said she intended only “to go along for the ride,’’ but once there, she was hired by the mission, which found itself short of economists.

In 1949, she was consultant to the Commission for Economic Development before joining the Wheaton College faculty as professor of economics and dean. Twice during her tenure, including in 1956 and from 1961 to ’62, she served as acting president, “a role which included helping to lead plans for a potential major expansion of the college,’’ her family said.

In 1962, the college awarded her an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Of her government work, she once said she found the change from teaching “exhilarating. After all, as a teacher you have to build up your capital and keep your store of new ideas fresh. And you always bring something, I think, from one experience to the other.’’

Dr. May’s experience with public finance and international trade problems was gained in the critical years of the 1940s and stood her in particularly good stead as a teacher. Extreme economic conditions, she said, serve as the best context for seeing how any policy changes affect the economy.

She was the author of “Government, Business and the Individual’’ and coauthor of “International Control in the Nonferrous Metals.’’

Dr. May was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the American Economic Association, the American Statistical Association, and the Society for International Development.

Her husband died in 1964. She leaves seven nieces and nephews, nine grandnieces and grandnephews; and eight great-grandnephews and great-grandnieces. Services are pending.

Neal Riley can be reached at nriley@globe.com.