The Collegian
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

For Abby Ayers, public life means keeping some things close to heart

Among the events the Ayerses attend each week, a contest that Abby and Ed Ayers participated in struck the new university president as a symbol of their experiences since they had lived in Richmond.

They agreed to a local "Dancing with the Stars" competition, which they competed in against Bobby Ukrop and a local radio personality. But when Abby and Ed Ayers arrived at the event, they found that the dance floor at the performance was half the size of what they had practiced on. They laughed at their predicament and "made it work," said Ed Ayers, 54.

"That's a metaphor for what we're doing now," Ed Ayers said. "We're both happy to learn how to dance new routines and to do it in public."

After living in Charlottesville, Va., for 26 years, Abby Ayers, 55, moved with her family to Richmond in July to become the University of Richmond's new first lady, and she said it has been a whirlwind everyday since.

"I'm trying to catch my breath here," she said. "We're hoping things will settle down a little, although it may take a year or two."

As the wife of a new university president, Abby Ayers, a soft-spoken woman with a southern drawl, was forced to quickly adopt a public lifestyle. She has about five events to attend each week and an 8,950-square-foot house to settle into with her husband and two children, Nate, 26, and Hannah, 21, a senior at the College of William and Mary.

Ayers and her husband, both from Kingsport, Tenn., attended rival high schools, but they did not meet until a mutual friend at the University of Tennessee introduced them, Abby Ayers said.

"I was the city girl, and he was the country boy," she added.

The change that the move to Richmond brought about for Abby Ayers -- who considers herself more of a private person -- was highlighted by the style of their new household. She described the President's House, located on the edge of campus, as much more public and formal than her previous home.

"We wanted to tone it down," she said. "We're a little more laid back than the previous owners."

Parts of the house must remain unchanged, but when the Ayerses had the freedom to personalize rooms, they made use of the opportunity.

The foyer, which previously appeared more formal, was redesigned as a gallery, and Abby Ayers, who loves art, added that she and her husband are hoping to decorate the walls with artwork by students and locals.

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In the basement, where Ed Ayers teaches a history class, is a room with comfortable red and blue chairs and a long white table. During the class every Monday night, the Ayerses provide dinner for the students. Even after updating a number of the rooms in the house to suit their style, the President's House still requires some adjustments.

"It's a huge house to ramble around in, to get settled in," Abby Ayers said. "I call [Ed] for dinner and say, 'Hello, can anybody hear me?'"

Ed Ayers married Abby Ayers in 1974, saying that his wife's "great gift is the way she lives with other people" and that she was grounded, genuine and played a crucial role in the Ayers family. "She was cast as the person who needs to be the counter to what we've signed up to do. She keeps us remembering who we are.

"If I didn't have her, I would pretty much be this all the time. Being the president can't be your whole identity," he said.

Before taking the job as university president, Ed Ayers served as the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, where he also taught history classes.

"We knew the sheer omnipresence of the president would be difficult," Ed Ayers said of his family's adjustment to his new position. "The job involves shallow and fleeting social interactions," while Abby Ayers prefers spending time with close friends and family.

An event the Ayerses hosted in July drew more than 100 university donors to their house. Abby Ayers summarized the event perfectly by comparing it to a first date, Ed Ayers said.

"She'll have one phrase that captures it, and I'll talk for pages," he said. "She's all punch line, and I'm all set up."

Carla Shriner, the assistant director of university events, said there has been a significant amount of entertaining at the President's House with the current administration. Shriner, who has held her position for almost 15 years at Richmond, is Abby Ayers's point of contact for several things, including event set-up.

"[Abby Ayers] talks to everybody just like she's known them all her life," Shriner said, noting that Ayers valued the opinions of the many people involved in organizing the' first large event at the President's House. "To be willing to take counsel from people who are around you all the time is just very, very wise."

Abby Ayers said she was looking into other ways to become involved on- and off-campus as she adjusted to life in Richmond. She has thought about volunteer opportunities, specifically those involving children, she said.

While in Charlottesville, Abby Ayers started Play Partners, a volunteer organization that helps children improve their reading skills. The volunteers, who hoped to encourage the children to focus on school, would visit daycare centers for children of low-income families, she said.

"I admire how much time she spends volunteering and the risks she take to entertain and teach kids," said Hannah Ayers.

Abby Ayers received her undergraduate degree in child development and her masters degree in arts and teaching. She's thinking about starting a similar organization in Richmond once life is more settled, she said.

Another interest Abby Ayers said she hoped to pursue in Richmond was gardening, although a grounds crew frequently updates the landscaping at the President's House.

"I've told them to save me some work," Abby Ayers said. "I'm spoiled -- I mention something and the next day, it's done."

A fan of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Ayers said that there are plenty of other places in the Richmond area that she would like to explore, including Pony Pasture, Belle Isle and Maymont Park. She is also looking forward to craft fairs and festivals to bring her to different areas.

"There hasn't been any time for playtime," Ayers said of her life in Richmond thus far. But in the years past, Abby Ayers has explored a variety of places around the world.

During the early 1990s, the Ayerses also lived in the Netherlands for about six months while Ed Ayers was enrolled in the Fulbright Program. They were able to visit several countries, including Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, England and Ireland. They later lived in California before moving to Virginia. Still, Abby Ayers calls Hawaii her favorite place to travel.

When visiting new places, Abby Ayers said she liked to balance her family's time between city activities and outdoor activities, ranging from museum visits to biking and hiking.

"When we travel to British Columbia or Australia, she seeks out the adventurous activities like white-water rafting," Hannah Ayers said. "She's really fun to travel with."

Just before the Ayerses moved into their house at Richmond, they also visited Hannah in Africa, where she was conducting research throughout the summer. But once they arrived on campus, their new roles kept them busy, and Ed Ayers said his wife has been his connection to reality throughout the transition.

"When I'm home, she reminds me of who I am and makes fun of me in a way I find entirely attractive and healthy," Ed Ayers said about his wife.

Although her experience at Richmond has been filled with events, Abby Ayers has found the time to thank those who have helped her. This summer she hosted a picnic for about 50 people who had been working on the house. She cooked every dessert for the event and thanked everyone publicly.

Ed Ayers said that act represented her new life as the president's wife.

"She's being herself but willing to take on this additional role," he said.

Ed Ayers said he saw the irony that his wife had married a "hippy history professor," yet ended up the wife of a university president. But he said his wife has enjoyed a great deal of her experiences so far.

"A normal person would find this an intrusion on privacy and time," he said, but noting that Abby Ayers has a willingness to take chances and explore new places.

"If she hadn't said 'It's time for a new adventure,' I wouldn't be here"

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