Part 1 of a 2-part story

By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

FITCHBURG -- As if Bill May's off-the-job agenda hasn't been busy enough, the former Townsend police chief-turned author can now add teaching to his post-retirement resume.

One afternoon last month, an invited guest sat in on the final session of the Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) enrichment class May taught at Fitchburg State University. The course title was "So You Want to Write a Book."

Gathered in a classroom on the McKay campus that day, about 15 of May's students, active seniors from area cities and towns -- Ashby, Leominster, Shirley and Townsend as well as Fitchburg -- included a college professor and at least one English teacher.

One student, Harry Semerjian, was a retired professor of music who taught at Fitchburg State University for nearly four decades, from 1960 to 1997.

Asked why they signed up for the course, some said they hoped writing would become a second-time-around career, as it did for their instructor.

Most of the students spoke of books in the works. One of them, Lindsay Moran of Townsend, said she'd already written one book and was working on another, both inspired by her famous uncle, E.B. White, who authored such beloved kids' classics as "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little."

Others had works in progress, mostly memoirs.

Grist for Mary Collins' writing mill, for example, could come from varied experiences she touched on in class and during a brief chat afterwards, from her travels to community activities in her hometown of Shirley. Collins said she instigated the town-wide yard sale several years ago that has since become a bi-annual event sponsored by the local newspaper.

Another student said that in the process of gathering material for her book, she'd reached out to people she grew up with in Leominster, where she still lives. She hadn't heard from these folks in years, she said, and it was daunting to make those calls at first, not knowing if old acquaintances would want to renew contact or would even remember her.

But she was pleasantly surprised when one old friend was not only glad to hear from her, he had vivid recollections of a shared past that included siblings and friends, she said, offering up a nostalgic cornucopia of childhood memories such as sledding down hilly city streets that were temporarily closed to traffic after a snowstorm.

Jim Page, of Fitchburg, is writing a book that taps into unpleasant experiences he had growing up in a Catholic orphanage. Far from a heartwarming tale, it deals with a touchy subject, he said, and he asked May if he should worry about being sued for libel if he mentions a place that really existed and uses people's real names.

"It's not libel if it's true," the instructor answered.

But May said he contacted people whose names appear in "Once Upon a Crisis" and they gave him permission to use them. Given the sensitive subjects and the nature of his involvement, that's not surprising.

May's second published book is a collection of true stories drawn from his many years as a police officer in Townsend.

One story per chapter, subjects range from humorous to grim, happy endings to worst-case scenarios. Crimes. Odd encounters, Untimely death. Family tragedy. And the murders during the holiday season over two decades ago of a young mother, her two small children and the baby she was carrying. A local teenager was convicted of the crime and is now serving life in prison without parole.

May not only worked the case -- he knew both families.

The man whose family was murdered, an attorney, stayed in town, remarried and continues to contribute to the community, but during that dark time, he was deeply despondent and contemplated suicide, May said. But when he asked the man for permission to tell the story in his book, he readily gave it.

"Once Upon a Crisis" is a personal book with a public purpose. Not of the "true crime" genre nor sensationalized news of the day, the stories are simply told, first-person accounts that highlight the traumas and tragedies first responders deal with, the stress and responsibility of their work and job-related anxieties they take home with them.

Most of May's students said they'd read and enjoyed his first book, "Billy Boy," a funny, first person, fictional account of the adventures of a Catholic boy growing up in a small town. The novel was based on the author's youthful experiences and escapades in Townsend, where he would one day become police chief. Few had read the second book, but he promised to contact their local libraries and drop off copies.