Robert H. Ayers, the child of a North Carolina Baptist minister, came to Athens in 1949 and became a leading proponent of integration and spearheaded the establishment of the University of Georgia’s Department of Religion.
The retired professor died Jan. 11 at the age of 99. A memorial service honoring his memory will be held 3 p.m. Sunday at Oconee Street United Methodist Church.
Ayers’ life impacted many of his students and his words were often a thorn in the side of his fundamentalist brethren.
Athens resident William E. Bray, president of Bilbo Book Publishers, released Ayers memoir in 2016.
“I was taking a religion class under him as a senior. This would be in 1959. He called me up after class one day and said, ‘Bill, I think you should go to Yale Divinity School. I think you would do well,’” said Bray, who did as his professor suggested. “I very much consider him my mentor.”
Last year, a signing was held at Avid Bookshop in Athens for Ayers’ book “Memoirs of a Southern Liberal.”
“For two hours he didn’t have a break. We had a line of former students and friends who spoke to him,” Bray said. “How many people can say they had the pleasure of publishing the memoir of their mentor.”
In addition to his teaching skills, Ayers also was respected for his stances on social justice issues.
“He was at the university during integration and was part of the faculty that supported integration of the university,” said longtime friend JoBeth Allen, who also attends Oconee Street UMC, where Ayers began attending after his wife, Mary Francis Ayers, died in 2010.
“Some of his students kept in touch with him even after all these years,” she said. “I know one was a scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Bob brought him to our Sunday School class once to speak about his research. His students really respected him.”
Ayers had two children, Jeremy Ayers and Sandra Ayers Holton.
“Jeremy died a year or so ago. He was an artist, a poet and photographer with a widespread and national reputation,” Allen said. “It was sad for Bob, the biggest tragedy in his life.”
Ayers grew up in Forest City, N.C., and graduated from Furman University, where he met his future wife. He then attended Yale University Divinity School for his masters and Vanderbilt for his doctoral degree. He was ordained as a minister in the spring of 1942 at the First Baptist Church of Waterbury, Conn., then took his first pastoral job at a Baptist church in Andrews, S.C., according to his memoir.
During his studies while living in Greenville, S.C., his memoir shows he was interested and concerned about the plight of the cotton mill workers who were tied to a “life-long system of wage slavery.” Then when he moved to Andrews, he saw first-hand the struggles of the sharecropper.
Ayers thrived in his chosen occupation to help others, according to Allen.
“If you spent five minutes with him, he would tell you, ‘I’m a PK” — a preacher’s kid,” Allen said. “He was proud of that and it influenced him very much.”