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A Tribute to Dr. Robert H. Ayers

Robert Ayers and L. Michael Thompson

In recognition and memory of Dr. Robert Ayers, who holds a very distinguished place in the history of our department, we are happy to share the following tribute, which L. Michael Thompson sent us to mark what would have been Dr. Ayers' 106 birthday on February 24, 2024:

A Tribute to Dr. Robert H. Ayers

Happy Birthday to my cherished mentor: Dr Robert H Ayers, would be 106 today. During his nineties, we often went to lunch together during the week of his birthday and I am saddened every year now during this week. Attached is a tribute I posted after his Memorial Service at Oconee Heights Methodist Church after his death on Jan. 11, 2018, just days shy of his 100th birthday. 

IN MEMORY OF DR. ROBERT H. AYERS: My initial encounter with Dr. Ayers was in Fall of 1977. I was a freshman at UGA majoring in Journalism, and decided to take an elective taught by Dr Ayers: Introduction to Religion. Not only was the course fascinating, but also the diminutive professor was remarkably captivating. As a result of my experience in this course, I decided to pursue a minor in religion, along with my major in journalism. At 18 years old, I was envisioning a career as a religion correspondent with a major US newspaper. 

In addition to my required journalism classes, from Spring Quarter 1979 to Summer Quarter 1980, I proceeded to take additional classes taught by Dr. Ayers including: Teachings of Jesus, The Life and Letters of Paul, New Testament Literature, Topics and Problems in Religion, and an Independent Study on Reinhold Niebuhr. These courses often included class picnics and softball games at Memorial Park, as Dr. Ayers obviously loved sharing life with his students. I was so enthused with my newfound academic knowledge in religion that I started writing a weekly column in the local newspaper of a small town fundamentalist community, and damn near got myself kicked out of the Baptist church. I was soon called to the Editor’s office and informed that my weekly column was not being well accepted by many of the local clergy and was not appropriate for the newspapers demographics. The column was discontinued after only 9 monographs. According to plan, I graduated from UGA in August 1980 with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, with a minor in Religion.

Under the instruction of Dr. Ayers, I had become so intrigued with the academic study of Religion that after graduating from UGA, I enrolled in the Master of Divinity program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I took courses there fall semester 1980 and short winter semester 1981. A personal decision and narrative that is too long to describe for the purpose of this memorial, led me to return to UGA in spring of 1981 to pursue the science courses needed for medical school prerequisites. Upon returning to UGA, I immediately sought out Dr. Ayers to seek counsel on the possibility of having my seminary hours transferred to UGA for the purpose of obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religion. As expected, Dr. Ayers was most gracious to assist me in this new endeavor. The instrumental involvement of Dr. Ayers led to the seminary hours transferring to UGA and I was awarded my prized degree in Religion. 

After meeting the science prerequisites for medical school, I enrolled at the Medical College of Georgia in fall of 1983. In the summer between my first and second years of medical school, I married my high school girlfriend at First Baptist Church of Jefferson. And on that day, guess who was on the front row of the groom’s side of the church: Dr. Robert H. Ayers. 

Unfortunately, during my remaining years of medical school and residency training in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I lost contact with Dr. Ayers. I returned to Athens in the summer of 1991 to start in the private practice of medicine and was thrilled to reconnect with my friend. On a blistering hot summer afternoon in August of 1991, I showed up unannounced to his home and was greeted at the front door by his wife Mary Frances. She led me back to see Dr Ayers who was getting his afternoon exercise on a treadmill. He recognized me immediately and we embraced like the father and the prodigal son. Upon our reconnection, Dr. Ayers insisted that I address him as “Dr. Bob,” but I could never do this, as it did not seem to display the respect I had for my mentor. Although I was not as diligent in my friendship duties as warranted, I had the privilege of going to a visiting professor lecture with Dr. Ayers, attending birthday parties, and listening to his sermon at Oconee Street United Methodist Church, entitled “Is Your God Too Small.” We had developed a tradition where I would pick him up sometime during the week of his February birthday and we would go to Athens Country Club for lunch and then take a golf cart ride and tour the golf course. Dr. Ayers was the captain of the golf team at Furman while obtaining his undergraduate degree and thoroughly enjoyed discussing golf and his best achieved handicap of 2 and his Club Champion title at Green Hills Country Club. We would return to his home for dark chocolate dessert from Koinonia Farm and inevitably we would get into a philosophical, religious, or political debate. It was IMPOSSIBLE to get in an argumentative mode with Dr. Ayers, because when the debate got contentious, he would gently end the discussion by saying, “Let’s just agree to be friends.” 

However, please do not underestimate how influential Dr. Ayers was in my life as a student and professional. During my meandrous adventures through the world of academics, I have taken classes ranging from: Weather and Climate, Chemistry, News Writing and Reporting, Physics, Anthropology, Communication Law, Biochemistry, Public Affairs Reporting, Organic Chemistry, Principles of Advertising, Biology, Magazine Article Writing, Calculus, Editing and Makeup, Hebrew, Vertebrate Zoology, Human Anatomy, Embryology, Human Histology, Human Physiology, Neuroscience, Genetics, Psychiatry, Pathology, Endocrinology, Law and the Physician, and Pharmacology. However, without doubt, the most memorable and influential of all my career courses, were those classes in religion as listed above and taught by Dr. Ayers. 

Although I lost contact with my mentor for many years, his influence on my life has always been present and cherished. I am certain his letter of recommendation for medical school was monumental in my acceptance. But more important were the skills I obtained under the tutelage of Dr. Ayers, especially the valuable arts of learning how to study and the process of critical thinking. Although the realms of religion and science often diverge in many aspects, the process of critical thinking that I learned from Dr. Ayers has served me well in both endeavors. To those of you who are educators at any level, NEVER underestimate how important your jobs are and how influential you can be on those you are teaching. Do not be afraid to get involved with the interests and lives of your students, because the potential impact you can have on a young life is colossal. Some of the influences you have go forever unbeknownst to you, but are forever revered by your students. Dr. Ayers was the ultimate example of an academic professional who knew how to connect with his students. I am quite certain he transformed many lives to the same extent that he impacted mine. My words can never express the appreciation and gratitude I have for Dr. Robert H. Ayers: he was a genuine, verifiable, and legitimate “Gentleman and a Scholar.” And all that my heart can express is, “thank you, Dr. Bob.

L. Michael Thompson, MD, FACOG

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