Muriel Wallace May was born in Dunedin on 13 April 1897 to Catherine Jane Ogilvie and her husband, Harry May, a confectioner. In June 1901 Harry accidentally drowned, leaving Catherine, with help from a supportive extended family, to bring up four-year-old Muriel and her two younger brothers. Muriel was educated at High Street School, Dunedin, and Otago Girls’ High School. In 1916, following two years’ pupil-teaching at High Street School, she enrolled at Dunedin Training College. At the same time she commenced part-time study at the University of Otago. Muriel loved Otago University uncritically from the moment she began. She graduated BA in 1920 and MA in 1923, and in 1926 gained a DipEd.
When she finished her two years at training college May joined the staff at Columba College, Dunedin. In 1921 she transferred to Otago Girls’ High School. Apart from 1937, when she was seconded to the Department of Education as a post-primary school inspector, she taught at the school until December 1940. She was described as a memorable and inspiring English and French teacher.
In 1941 May became principal of Southland Girls’ High School, Invercargill. She had worked with three outstanding principals – Frances Ross, Flora Allan and Mary King – whose example clearly influenced her when setting her own high standards. May quickly became a much-admired leader: small, always composed and well-dressed, she was an accomplished public speaker and ‘a woman with a fine sense of values, a lively mind, wit and perception’. She knew every girl by name in her orderly and disciplined school, and took a keen interest in all their activities. She regarded the 1940s as exciting years to begin as a principal due to the Thomas Report, which led to major changes in secondary education: School Certificate was separated from University Entrance, and the curriculum broadened to include more than 30 optional subjects. Even so, she had to cope with the upheaval of the Second World War, poliomyelitis epidemics, and, with growing rolls, a crowded ill-equipped school until new buildings were opened in 1948. She remained principal until her retirement in 1956. In 1967 Southland Girls’ High School honoured her by naming its newly built classrooms the Muriel May Block.
May remained active in retirement. In 1960, when the government set up the Commission on Education in New Zealand, she was appointed a member. She had had wide educational experience, including service from 1938 to 1946 as the first woman on the Council of the University of Otago. For two years, under the chairmanship of Sir George Currie, members of the commission considered the publicly controlled education system in relation to the present and future needs of New Zealand, and the question of state aid to private schools. Public hearings were held in various centres, and commission members visited teachers’ training colleges, schools and other educational institutions. After its release the Currie report was described as ‘the most extensive review we have had of New Zealand education services’, and an ‘outstanding guide for educational developments’.
Muriel May also had a literary career. Before moving to Invercargill she wrote a weekly essay for Dunedin’s Evening Star under the pen-name ‘Panache’. During her retirement in Dunedin she wrote a history of St Hilda’s Collegiate School (1969), the story of her fastidious cat in Miranda (1970), and her lively autobiography, Freshly remembered (1973). Also in 1973, she won first prize in the Otago Daily Times ’s historical essay competition with her entry on Watson Shennan, a pioneer Otago explorer and runholder. An imaginative and lively writer, she brought characters quickly and vividly to life. She was appointed an OBE in 1976 for services to education and literature.
May’s other interests included a long connection with the WEA, the Otago Women’s Club, the Dunedin Shakespeare Club, and the New Zealand Federation of University Women since its inception in 1921. In retirement she joined the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, the Otago Peninsula and Fortune Theatre trusts, and the PEN New Zealand Centre. She also served on St Hilda’s Collegiate School board of governors. She never married, and died in Dunedin on 11 August 1982.