When Ed Ayers steps down as University of Richmond president on July 1, he will have time to write, play squash, and take a much-anticipated vacation with his wife.
But before Ayers picks up a lost hobby, celebrates with his wife, or begins one of his anticipated post-presidency projects, he expects to take a much-needed break.
“I’m expecting to sort of stare into space,” Ayers said.
Maybe, even, he’ll remember what his wife, Abby Ayers, cooked him for dinner.
“He just chows down and moves on,” she said.
Ayers has served as Richmond’s president since 2007 and worked as a dean at University of Virginia in the six years prior. He continued teaching history, his true passion, at both universities, winning the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s National Professor of the Year award in 2003. While doing all of this, he helped establish and serve as one of three hosts on BackStory, a history podcast, which has had more than 5.1 million downloads since it started in 2008.
“It’s really been 14 years without a break,” Ayers said.
But anyone who knows Ayers well, such as Brian Balogh, a history professor at the U. Va. who has been friends with Ayers for about 25 years and also hosts BackStory with him, knows Ayers can only lose focus but for so long.
“I don’t think Ed would stare at a wall for long without out writing a book about it, digitizing it, and creating a new way to build walls,” Balogh said.
Balogh, in a way, is right; writing, digitizing, and creating new things will make up much of Ayers post-presidential life. And he will, of course, continue teaching history and hosting his radio show, too.
A main reason Ayers decided to step down when he did was because he had completed many of the goals he hoped to accomplish while president of Richmond.
“My wife and I just talked it over during the winter break, and said you know we're coming up on actually accomplishing the things we said we would do - the Richmond Promise and the campaign,” Ayers told The Collegian in March 2014, soon after he announced he would step down as president.
Ayers capped off his Richmond Promise this year with the implementation of the Richmond Guarantee.
“He pretty much accomplished everything he wanted to and he feels like he’s leaving at a good place," Abby said. "Everything seems like it’s in good shape.”
Ayers’ work, however, is nowhere near over. Although Ayers will no longer be president, he plans to work just as hard as he has while at Richmond, but with his work more fixated on a national scale, he said.
“I’m convinced there are two or three Ed Ayers,” Balogh said. “I don’t actually see how one person does everything that Ed does. And to be honest, I felt that way before he was president of the University of Richmond, and I’m sure it’s going to be the same after.”
Ayers will continue working on his weekly podcast, BackStory with the American History Guys, alongside Balogh and Peter Onuf.
Balogh originally laughed at the concept of the podcast, which, according to its website, is to bring “historical perspective to the events happening around us today.”
“I didn’t think it would ever work,” Balogh said. “Then it’s become a really successful weekly radio show.”
Successful is an understatement; BackStory has received more than 5.1 million downloads in its eight-year history, has about 30,000 weekly subscribers and nearly 800,000 SoundCloud followers. The show is currently broadcast by 49 primary public radio stations, covering 24 states and Washington D.C.
Ayers records BackStory in his study, which serves as both a recording studio and an office. The quaint, spacious study will also be where Ayers will work on his first post-presidency project.
In the coming months, Ayers will dedicate himself to completing the second and final volume of his “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” series. Ayers published the first volume, which covers the Civil War from 1859 – 1864, in 2003 and was subsequently awarded the Bancroft Prize, a prestigious award given to authors of books about diplomacy or the history of the Americas. The second volume will stretch from the Battle of Gettysburg through Reconstruction. The combined volume will tell story of the Civil War in Pennsylvania and Virginia through the general population’s eyes, Ayers said.
“It’ll be a long two-volume set that I am hoping will give people a different perspective on the most written about subject in American history,” Ayers said.
Ayers has completed the research and organizational aspect of writing the book, and he has written about 100 pages out of what he expects to be about a 500-page book.
“Now is actually the fun part,” Ayers said, “actually telling the story and finding the best words to use.”
Ayers limits himself to about five hours per day. “Even if you are having a good day it’s hard to write more than four or five hours,” he said.
“Mornings are his best time,” Abby said. “He’ll get up and have breakfast and go back to his study and write until he can’t do it anymore.”
Ayers does not plan to stop writing after completing this book. In fact, he has an even larger project in mind.
“The book I’d like to write is a full history of the enslaved South, a book that would include everybody in it,” Ayers said. “We have lots of books about that, but there’s not one place you can go to understand what the entire society looked liked. That’ll be very hard, and sounds like something that would be worth doing.”
While Ayers certainly has plenty of writing to do, he is looking forward to living a more, in his words, “humane” life in his coming year off.
A month before Ronald Crutcher replaces Ayers as president, he and his wife face an important task: moving. They must be out of their house behind the Jepson Alumni Center by June 1, Abby said.
The couple did not sell their previous house when they moved from U. Va. to Richmond, and they will be returning to Charlottesville, where they moved to in 1980, to live full time.
“The kids were born and raised there, so that’s pretty much home,” Abby said.
Once his presidency is completed and he and his wife have moved, Ayers will have time to pick up some lost hobbies. He will spend next year on leave, so he will have limited responsibilities other than writing his book.
“I think it will be an adjustment because he’s just so used to going as hard as he can all day long,” Abby said. “He’ll stay busy.”
“My mom will make sure he isn’t too lethargic in his new role as former president,” said Nathaniel Ayers, President Ayers and Abby’s son.
Ayers plans on exercising more – something he’s neglected recently, he said – and he is looking forward to playing squash after taking some time off.
“I played a lot over the years, but I’ve been so busy this last year that I’ve gotten out of the cycle, so I look forward to playing a lot,” Ayers said.
Balogh has played squash with Ayers for about 20 years, and thinks their all-time record is close to even but Ayers said it will take some time for him to regain his form.
“I have good friends here whom I play,” Ayers said, “and I’m just hoping they’ll be patient with me while I try to get back into form. I was never very good in the first place, so I’m not sure they’ll be able to tell any difference.”
Balogh thinks Ayers might be downplaying where his form actually stands.
“He’s probably just trying to set me up for the next game to make me feel over confident,” Balogh said.
Ayers will also have more free time to spend with Abby, who is looking forward to doing ordinary things on their own time, such as go out to dinner or visit exhibits.
The couple will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, albeit a year late, by taking a vacation during the typical school year, something Ayers has not been able to do.
“My wife has always had the dream of taking a vacation when it was not the dead of summer,” Ayers said.
“We’re thinking about New Zealand,” Abby said, “because we like outdoors things. We like to mix it up with cultural things… but then we like to do hiking and nature-type things.”
Like any historian Ayers enjoys exploring, making New Zealand an understandable destination for Abby and him. This curiousness has been instrumental in helping Ayers find new ways to share his passion for history with others.
In addition to Ayers’ well-known passion for history, he has also been a pioneer in how modern technology can be used to benefit the study and the understanding of the humanities.
“I think it was Ed Ayers who told me about the World Wide Web, and that it was going to be big,” Balogh said. “He got that right.”
One of Ayers’ major projects that he has worked on while at Richmond, and one of the major projects he hopes to continue working on for several more years is Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, which is a series of humanities projects that use new technologies to create interactive maps and guides. According to its website, “It seeks to reach a wide audience by developing projects that integrate thoughtful interpretation in the humanities and social sciences with innovations in new media.”
“I’m not sure the lab will ever be complete per se; [there are] always going to be new ideas that will turn into a project,” said Nathaniel Ayers, who, in addition to being Ayers’ son, is a programmer analyst at the DSL.
“Right now, we’re working on the first series of interactive maps for the large and ongoing atlas project,” Nathaniel said. “The first four maps include: Forced Migration, Overland Trails, Canals, and Foreign Born Population.”
The DSL will debut the first installment of its digital outlook of American history soon, Ayers said.
“I think it’s going to really get people excited – it certainly has me excited – to be able to see all the complex patterns of American history in a new way,” Ayers said.
Nathaniel said he has enjoyed working with his father, and the two sometimes share ideas for the DSL outside of work.
“I’m not sure that there are any particular challenges other than trying to make sure he is happy with anything I’ve done,” Nathaniel said, “and maybe a little extra pressure, but in an encouraging way. He definitely gets pretty excited about trying out some ideas that come to him while he’s on a plane or hotel room late at night.”
Ayers could have another opportunity to help with the humanities at a national level. President Barack Obama nominated Ayers to join the National Council of the Humanities (NCH). He now just needs Congress’ approval to rejoin the same board he worked on from 1999 to 2004.
Ayers jokingly wondered if the FBI had done some elaborate tests to make sure he wouldn’t embarrass the government.
“I think I passed all that,” he said.
The NCH consists of 26 appointed members who serve as the advisory board to the National Endowment of the Humanities, which “serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans,” according to its website.
“Basically what’s involved is I get a chance to see all the cool stuff that some people are thinking about, and help give them money to do it,” Ayers said.
While Ayers has a series of large projects ahead of him, he expects to continue working with Richmond students after he steps down as president.
President Ayers is, first and foremost, a teacher, and hopes to continue teaching courses at Richmond in his post-presidential career.
Even while Ayers balanced the unruly schedule as Richmond’s president, he managed to find time to teach. Julia Rivara, WC ’17, took a first-year seminar course with Ayers, and said it was one of the best classes with one of the best teachers she has had.
“He has a way of making everyone feel comfortable in the room,” Rivara said.
Despite Ayers’ busy travel schedule, he always made it back for class, Rivara said. “You could tell he enjoyed being there,” she said.
Balogh, who met Ayers at U. Va. n 1990, said he had been absolutely blown away by Ayers’ commitment to educating undergraduate students.
“It’s frankly wonderful to see somebody who is a world-renowned scholar who also cares just as much about teaching sophomores in the classroom as he does about his other scholarship,” Balogh said.
“He was one of those people that when students talked to each other about somebody you just have to take a class with before you leave U. Va., Ed Ayers was at the very top of that list.”
Contact editor-in-chief Jack Nicholson at firstname.lastname@example.org