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'She’s our matriarch’: Sykesville woman honored by church for six decades of music

Filling the sanctuary of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Sykesville with songs of worship has been the duty of Betty Ely May for 64 years.

May recently retired from the role of music director, which she held close to her heart. At 85, May decided it was time to pass the torch.

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“The choir has always been an extension of my family,” May said. “I sang my first performance at age 3 in the Sunday school program."

The church celebrated May’s last day as music director June 9, but the congregation had more planned. On July 28, May was given the title of music director emeritus. A stained glass window bearing her name and title was revealed during a special worship service that day.

May joined the church choir at age 12 and began playing organ off and on for the church at 13, she said.

She studied music theory and voice at Peabody Preparatory in Baltimore on the weekends while she attended Sykesville High School. May graduated from both in 1952, then went on to study music education at Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, and finished her degree in 1957. She taught for 30 years in the county, spending most of her career at Eldersburg Elementary, May said.

“There’s the old saying, bloom where you’re planted, and that’s what I decided to do,” May said.

As music director, May has taught generations of singers, including her family. Her nephew Gary Rains and May’s sister Carol Ann sing in the choir.

“The three of us sing together ... there’s nothing like family harmony,” Rains said. "Being able to do that with your family is so special.”

Five generations of their family have attended St. Paul’s. May has a son named Steven and two grandchildren, Alex and Kristen, though they don’t attend the church currently.

Rains described his aunt as a “musician from head to toe.”

“Instead of going on with her career, she decided to keep it right here in Sykesville," Rains said. “She’s our matriarch, but she’s their matriarch too.”

Growing up singing at and attending church, May said she didn’t know any different.

“It’s sort of like a second home," she said.

May recalled a time when the choir gifted her and husband Thomas tickets to the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore to see a Broadway show for her birthday. On another occasion, when May reached her 40th anniversary with the choir, they gave her an umbrella and English money before she went on a trip to England, she said.

Senior Pastor Doug Tzan said he’s never met anyone like May.

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“She’s one of a kind,” Tzan said. “Her dedication is impressive.”

Tzan marveled at how much of the church’s history May has witnessed. The church’s cornerstone is marked with the year 1878, he said, and May has been leading musical worship for almost half of the church’s life.

“It’s no exaggeration to say St. Paul’s is the church that it is today because of her leadership," Tzan said.

He believes many people have stayed with the choir because of May’s guidance.

“She approaches leading … with incredible professionalism," Tzan said.

Although May won’t direct the choir any more, she said it’s likely you’ll find her sitting in a pew, enjoying the performance from the back seat as newcomer Judy Law leads the way.

Law was choir director for 31 years at First United Methodist Church in Laurel. She said May gave her “a lot of ideas” on how to lead the choir, which takes a break from practice in the summer.

“I feel like she had the group in good hands and I’m looking forward to stepping in," Law said.

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