Peggy Mays hands over the ribbon cutting scissors outside the new Mays Family Center. Photo by Lea Thompson
Peggy Pitman Mays hands over the scissors at a ribbon-cutting ceremony outside the Witte Museum's new Mays Family Center in April 2016. Credit: Lea Thompson for the San Antonio Report

Peggy Pitman Mays loved many people: her husband, her four children, her 16 grandchildren, her great-grandchild. But she also loved animals and gave a safe home to more than 20 different species on the family ranch – including zebras, wildebeest, and bison.

“She has named almost every single animal,” said her daughter Kathy Johnson. “They were all her pets.”

Mays died on Nov. 11 at the age of 85. She is survived by her husband of 61 years, Lowry Mays, as well as daughter Kathy and her husband Bill Johnson and their child Paige; daughter Linda and her husband Michael McCaul and their five children, Caroline, Jewell, Michael, Lauren, and Avery; son Mark and his wife Patti and their six children, Ryan and wife Marie, Patrick, Daniel, Andrew, Matthew, and Maggie; and son Randall and his four children, Grace, Lowry, Margot, and Nicole; and by her great-grandson, Zachry Lowry Mays.

The family gathered at the ranch on Saturday for Mays’ memorial service, a fitting place for a send-off, Johnson said. Mays and her husband Lowry spent every weekend there, and the whole family celebrated the holidays there, reveling in the outdoors and visiting Mays’ many animal friends. Mays named her two bison Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley and her striped bongos Belle, Amazing, Little Sister, and Big Boy.

“She fed the bongos, by hand, saltine crackers,” she said. “They would walk up to her car. She had a red deer – a big white-tail [deer], but it had a red shade. Her name was Rachel. And Rachel used to eat saltine crackers too; she would just walk right on up to the car.”

Mays’ love for animals was bolstered by a love for travel. She and Johnson traveled to Africa and followed the “great migration” of different animals in Kenya when Mays was 70, Johnson said, but she was still more than game to sleep in a tent for the journey. Mays and her husband, Lowry, also traveled in the early years of their marriage. They married in 1959 and spent their first year together in Taiwan before moving on to visit other parts of the world.

“She fell in love with the African wildlife and the beauty of the open,” Johnson said. “Being outside [on the ranch], she loved sitting there and watching the sunset.”

Mays taught her family to love and appreciate animals, but also to give back to the community. Mays spent most of her life in the San Antonio area – she was even crowned Queen of the Order of the Alamo in 1959 – and has financially supported many local programs and initiatives through the Mays Family Foundation over the years. She had four bouts of cancer, receiving her first diagnosis 35 years ago. Because of that, she became passionate about supporting cancer research, Johnson said. The Mays Family Foundation has given millions of dollars to UT Health San Antonio and has a cancer center named after the family. 

The Mays Family Foundation also donates to Texas BioMed, which is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic, said Johnson, who serves as the president of the foundation. But Mays also wanted to support many other causes.

“She was a teacher,” Johnson said. “She loved education. She loved supporting schools, and she loved the arts.”

Mays served as the chairman of San Antonio Museum of Art board and started the docent program at the McNay Art Museum. The family foundation also supports children through the Mays Family YMCA and the Mays Family Clubhouse for the Boys & Girls Club of San Antonio, another cause very close to Mays’ heart.

Before starting her family, Mays attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, eventually attaining a master’s degree in interior design from the University of the Incarnate Word.

Mays had a high energy level and was incredibly organized, Johnson said, both traits important for juggling all of her professional, philanthropic, and familial interests. She loved God deeply and gave her time and energy to her church, Christ Episcopal Church. She also never missed a birthday or a holiday celebration, Johnson said. In fact, she dressed in Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas garb every day of the relevant season.

“This whole last month, we’ve been wearing pumpkin shirts and spider shirts,” Johnson said with a laugh. “She dressed every day for Halloween leading up to Halloween. Then she dressed every day like Thanksgiving. Then Christmas comes, and she’s got Santa sweaters and things like that. It really reinforced the celebration of the moment in life. I really liked that about her.”

Mays also was easy to identify during the Christmas season because she wore a small sleigh bell around her neck, Johnson said. She would jingle through the office, at the ranch, wherever she was. 

“You could hear her coming and going,” Johnson said.

This year, the Mays family will decorate the tree without her but will make sure to keep the stories behind her many ornaments alive. One of the most treasured ornaments, a figure of a “little old man,” was also the oldest, passed down from Mays’ mother, who got it from her mother.

“She had a beautiful Christmas tree every year where she put ornaments that she collected from all of her travels,” Mays said. “Each ornament had a story. Decorating the Christmas tree took weeks because we’d have to hear the story of each ornament. She was very sentimental.”

Mays loved beauty in many forms – through her involvement in the arts, her ornament collection, and, of course, the outdoors. She created the Mays Family Display Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden and always made sure to plant wildflowers at the ranch, nurturing their colorful blooms that would also help feed the many hummingbirds that visited the 10 feeders she set up for them.

“She was a great lover of all creatures, great and small,” Johnson said.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.