Harry Brandt Ayers (1935–2020)

Jun 1, 2020


Harry Brandt Ayers died at his home on May 3. He was 85 years old. The son of Colonel and Mrs. Harry Mell Ayers was born in Anniston, Alabama, on April 8, 1935. He attended the Woodstock Elementary School and graduated from The Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut. He received Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alabama and retained his fierce loyalty to its football teams throughout his life. Both institutions awarded him with a distinguished alumni awards in recognition of his career achievements.

After serving in the Navy, Ayers returned to Anniston for a brief stint working for his family’s newspaper, The Anniston Star. From there, he went to The Raleigh (North Carolina) Times as capitol and legislative reporter. While in Raleigh, he met Josephine Peoples Ehringhaus; they were married in 1961.
They moved to Washington immediately afterward, and Ayers began work for the Bascomb Timmons Bureau, which served southern newspapers from Texas to North Carolina. He was assigned to cover the Justice Department, where he was privy to all the negotiations between the Kennedy Administration and Gov. George Wallace regarding the desegregation of The University of Alabama.

Ayers represented the third generation of his family to serve as chairman and publisher of The Anniston Star. He retired in 2018 after 43 years. During his tenure, Time magazine twice named the newspaper “one of the best small newspapers in the United States.” In 1998, amid dwindling family owned papers, Ayers was featured as the cover story of American Journalism Review. In addition to his interest in The Star, he was co-owner of The Daily Home of Talladega, The Jacksonville (Alabama) News, The Cleburne News, The News Journal and the St. Clair Times. For many years, he wrote a weekly syndicated column, “Out Here,” carried by some 30 newspapers. He was a frequent opinion contributor to a variety of papers, including The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. He was a regular commentator for “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio.

Ayers was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University (1967-68), and in 1990, he was named a Gannet Fellow at Columbia University. He received a Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1996. He received numerous awards from national and state civic, educational and social organizations, including the Alabama Academy of Honor, which recognizes the accomplishment of 100 living Alabamians. Ayers was honored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors with its Leadership Award in 2003. During his long career, he traveled widely in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East on governmental and journalistic missions. He served as a trustee of the American Committee of the International Press Institute, Vienna, and on the advisory board of the Ditchley Foundation, London.

In 1970, Ayers was a co-founder of the LQC Lamar Society, an organization that brought together political and civic leaders from all over the South to address leadership vacuums throughout the region. LQCLS established the Commission on the Future of the South, which investigated origins, current conditions and offered solutions to the challenges faced by the South to build a progressive, inclusive society. With his colleague, Thomas Naylor, he edited and contributed to “You Can’t Eat Magnolias,” a manifesto for the “New South.”

Ayers lectured on foreign and domestic affairs at many venues, including Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Capetown, Natal University and the University of Nairobi. He was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, a trustee of The Century Foundation of New York (formerly the Twentieth Century Fund), trustee of the Southern Center for International Studies and was appointed by President Carter to the Board of Foreign Scholarships (the International Fulbright Board).

He was inducted into the University of Alabama’s Communication Hall of Fame in October 2000. In 2002, Ayers fulfilled a longtime dream with his founding of World Affairs Journalism Fellowship Program, which would supply travel grants to regional editors to learn about and report on countries around the world.

In his native Alabama, Ayers served on numerous boards and commissions, including The Advisory Council to Dr. Joseph Volker at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Board of Trustees of Talladega College, The Alabama Research Alliance, and the Alabama Archives and History Foundation Board.

In Anniston, Ayers wore many hats: founding board member of The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, founder with the late Sunny King and Glen Huie of the Forward Calhoun County initiative to raise money to support local needs in the region and founder with the late Tom Potts and the late Reverend James Tinsley of the Committee on Unified Leadership (COUL). Like his father before him, he devoted his life to supporting public education; he was a founder of the NEXT START program and of PEFA, the Public Education Foundation of Anniston, among dozens of other efforts to improve education opportunities and outcomes in his beloved hometown.

Ayers was the author of several publications and books.

“A Bicentennial Portrait of the American People: An Epitaph for the Past.” The chapter contributed is “The South and the Nation are Joined.” — “U.S. News & World Report,” 1975.

“The Second Greatest Generation,” commencement address at the University of Alabama, 2002.

“In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal,” New South Books 2012

“The 2013 BCS National Championship,” New South Books, 2012.

“Cussing Dixie, Loving Dixie,” University of Alabama Press, Carol Nunnelley, editor, 2015.

“Missionary Doctor,” the journey of his grandfather, Dr. Thomas W. Ayers, as a medical missionary in China during 1901-1925. To be published 2020.

Ayers is survived by his wife, Josephine, and their daughter, Margaret.

He was a lifelong member of Grace Episcopal Church. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.

Memorial gifts may be made to Grace Episcopal Church, 1000 Leighton Ave., Anniston, AL 36207; The Wooster School, 91 Miry Brook Rd., Danbury, CT 06810; or The Anniston Museum of Natural History, 800 Museum Dr., Anniston, AL 36206.