Public shot is the climax of private strife

Michelle Kibiger

When Jennifer Joan May allegedly walked into the office of University President Nils Hasselmo and shot a bullet into the ceiling June 11, she was a very different woman from the one who came to the University in 1981. The woman known today from media reports as demanding and angry was then described as pleasant and cheerful by her co-workers.
May was scheduled to appear at a pre-trial conference Friday, where the prosecuting and defending attorneys would determine if there is enough evidence for trial. Neither attorney was available, and the hearing will be rescheduled for some time in the next two weeks.
Judy Alvarado, a former tenant of May and May’s husband Ron, said she didn’t have a negative word to say about May. “I was very surprised to hear about her problems,” she said. “She was extremely supportive.”
Evidence seems to show a drastic change in May’s behavior and life as a result of her romantic relationship with W. Ron Gentry, chairman of the Department of Chemistry where May worked.
Currently, there are no active legal conflicts between May and Gentry. However, experts say that emotional resolution is even more important than legal justice in situations where sexual harassment is alleged. The University dismissed a sexual harassment charge May filed against Gentry in 1991.
May and her family have declined to comment about the incident at this time. Her attorney, George O. Ludcke, said he thought it was improper to try this case in the media and would only allow the story to emerge in the courtroom. Nevertheless, an extensive paper trail gives a glimpse into May’s life.
May first came to work at the University in February 1981, as a secretary in the surgery department. She worked in the department for seven years and received one promotion.
She moved to the chemistry department in February 1987. Her supervisor at the time, Gladys Olson, said she was a good worker and had an easy-going personality.
“She was a very pleasant person to work with,” Olson said.
John F. Evans, then the department’s vice-chairman, agreed. He said she was very outgoing, personable and easy to work with. “She seemed like she was real happy and doing her job well.”
During her first two years in the chemistry department, May was promoted from senior secretary to administrative secretary, and then to executive secretary.
May and Gentry began their relationship in fall 1990. They were both married at the time, though Gentry was separated from his wife. In a prepared statement released after the shooting, he described the relationship as mutual and consensual.
The couple consulted with a professional counselor and an expert on women’s issues in the workplace to manage their professional and personal relationships. Gentry also informed faculty and staff members in the department about the relationship, especially female faculty members.
Gentry said in an interview that his main concern was making sure May did not benefit unfairly because of their relationship. “I did not anticipate that sexual harassment would ever be an issue,” he said.
Gentry said he tried to relieve whatever discomfort other people in the office may have felt by talking to experts from the start.
“I believe we were successful in alleviating any concerns which other members of the department might have had,” he said, “because of our openness in discussing our relationship with others.”
The relationship deteriorated later that year and dissolved completely in February 1991, when Gentry reconciled with his wife.
Evans said May experienced some very dramatic personality changes when her relationship with Gentry soured. “I think she was very hurt and frustrated about it,” Evans said.
May seemed to be less willing to talk with co-workers about the situation, Evans said, because she was defensive and distrustful. “She felt that she was being hung out to dry,” he said.
In a memo to department administrator Stanley Bonnema, Gentry describes an incident after their break-up where May threw a paperweight at him and damaged his computer screen and his desk. He stated that she had thrown objects at him many times. During this episode, May allegedly hit Gentry several times and kicked him once.
Beginning in May 1991, May went on an extended leave of absence that lasted until she eventually quit in August. While on leave, she filed a complaint of sexual harassment with the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
The office investigated the complaint but dismissed it because of lack of evidence. May then filed a federal charge of discrimination against the University, but withdrew it in February 1992.
Throughout the months after the University dismissed May’s charges, she made several phone calls to the chemistry department. She also sent letters to Gentry and Susan Damme, who was designated as the department’s ombudsman and women’s issues specialist.
Damme was unavailable for comment.
May’s letters showed what Evans described as frustration and mistrust toward the department. She expressed anger over what she called “losing” her job, called members of the department liars, and said she hated them for not supporting her “through the most horrible time in my life.”
She also returned a book Gentry had given her during their relationship entitled “Healing the Child Within — Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families.” She had written expletives to Gentry on both the cover and the title page of the book, saying “Your … not worth it.”
Even though there was some discomfort among department members, Evans said, he was never threatened by May’s actions because Gentry was the object of most of her anger.
Evans said his relationship was strained with Gentry because he didn’t think he was treating May fairly.
As part of the precautionary steps Gentry took, he no longer had any influence over May’s salary or job decisions. However, because he was chairman of the department, Gentry still had power over May while she worked there. Experts say that subtle influence has a tremendous emotional impact.
“It’s all about power,” said David Johnson, director of the University Employee Assistance Program. When an employee files a complaint, like May did, the parties are automatically referred to his office for any counseling needs they may have.
“We will validate their feelings,” Johnson said. When sexual harassment is involved or even alleged, the persons involved often feel like justice hasn’t been served. He said an emotional resolution is important and that other alternatives don’t always help.
“The complainant can resolve their feelings and (we) can help them get along with their lives,” he said.
Johnson said that especially in a situation like the one between Gentry and May, the inherent power difference in their relationship had a strong impact even though the couple was open about the issues.
“That power difference is really very significant and is not really a consensual relationship,” he said.
Although things are getting better in regards to dealing with sexual harassment complaints, Johnson said it’s still difficult because harassment is much more subtle now than before.
“The University system works far better than it did 15 years ago,” he said, “but that’s not to say it’s fool proof.” He added that the equal opportunity and affirmative action office has not always supported a complainant the way it should.
Stephanie Lieberman, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, implemented a stringent protocol when she became director last year to make sure that investigations are consistent. Although she could not comment directly about this case because charges were dismissed, her office usually advises employees that relationships like May’s and Gentry’s are problematic at best.
She said the subject of workplace relationships will become more controversial because the University Faculty Senate is considering a proposal to prohibit relationships between people with power differentials.
Since she left the University, May has been involved in divorce proceedings. She filed for divorce from her husband Ron in 1992, and the case was dismissed in November of last year.
May was admitted to Abbott-Northwestern Hospital shortly after her release from jail June 28. She had checked out as of last week, but is still receiving ongoing mental health care, said Ludcke, May’s attorney.