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Executive director of Grigg-Lewis Foundation to retire

LOCKPORT – William B. “Ben” May, executive director of Lockport’s Grigg-Lewis Foundation since its creation, is retiring as of Dec. 31 at age 86.

May, a lawyer, has been a key factor in making the foundation a major player in local philanthropy, with a concentration on gifts in eastern Niagara County.

He represented the founder, Henrietta Grigg Lewis, from 1958 until her death in May 2003 at age 97. She left the bulk of her estate of about $40 million to the foundation, which had been formed in 1998.

Christa R. Caldwell, the president of the foundation’s seven-member board, said she will be in charge for the time being, although she will not assume the title of executive director.

Caldwell said it will probably be three to six months before the board decides on an executive structure.

May, who was ill Tuesday and unavailable to comment, will continue to serve as secretary of the board and as executive director emeritus.

The foundation made its largest gift ever, $4 million, toward the construction of Cornerstone Arena, Lockport’s new $14 million ice rink. Caldwell said she was sure May would agree that the arena was the foundation’s proudest moment so far.

The foundation likes to fund charities of the sort that Mrs. Lewis favored, including the YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Wyndham Lawn Home for Children and First Presbyterian Church.

That was the church she and May attended, along with the late Norman Sinclair, longtime president of the former Lockport Savings Bank, now First Niagara Bank. They were the ones who started the foundation.

“It was a very Presbyterian thing at the beginning. That (church) was one of her big interests,” Caldwell said.

May got to know Mrs. Lewis when he joined her husband’s law firm in 1958. Soon, he was in charge of her charitable interests, first by creating a trust in the 1960s, then by setting up the foundation, Caldwell said.

Besides the rink, Caldwell said she was hard-pressed to say which were the other most important projects the foundation funded under May’s leadership.

“It’s hard to say, because there’s been so many projects, and the effect is cumulative,” she said.

The school at Wyndham Lawn and the library at Niagara County Community College both are named for Mrs. Lewis because of major gifts she and the foundation made to those institutions.

The $1 million grant to NCCC in 2005 was the largest the college ever had received.

Other major projects helped by the foundation in recent years include the Flight of Five restoration of the 19th century Erie Canal locks; the expansion of the Lockport Salvation Army building; the planned new Lockport YMCA; the Riviera Theatre marquee in North Tonawanda and the Challenger Learning Center in Lockport. The foundation has also aided the Kenan Center and the Historic Palace Theatre in Lockport, as well as Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.

May, a Schenectady native, moved to Lockport as a boy and graduated from Lockport High School in 1945. He attended Northwestern University and the University of Buffalo, and earned his law degree from Cornell University in 1956. He has served on many other local charitable boards and has won several awards for his philanthropic work.