Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with W. Bruce Ayers, December 6, 2006

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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KLEE: The following is an unrehearsed interview for the Community College System Project by John Klee. The interview's being conducted with Dr. Bruce Ayers, who is the president of Southeast Community and Technical College. The interview is being conducted on December 6, 2006. Dr. Ayers, I forgot to tell you we need to sign a form --

AYERS: Okay.

KLEE: -- to make it so it can go to the -- to UK. And I just need a signature down there. It essentially says that people can listen to these and use them. And that's something I need to do is get those 00:01:00addresses on those other individuals. I'll --

AYERS: We can help you with that.

KLEE: I'll try the Internet first or I'll call you.

AYERS: Okay.

KLEE: Let's start by talking about your personal background. Are you from this community?

AYERS: Well, I'm from Bell County, which is a neighboring county. I grew up in a coal mining camp, a camp called Insull, named after the industrialist Samuel Insull, so yeah, I'm local.

KLEE: Who ran that camp? What company?

AYERS: Actually, it was run by Southern Mining Company. And they were a subsidiary, I understand, of a larger company, but I don't know who that was right now, to be honest with you. But the holler where I grew up, John -- and of course, we do call them hollers here -- had five or 00:02:00six large mines that were in operation when I was a boy. So mining was very much a part of our culture and, of course, the principal part of the economy. It kind of helped to define who we were.

KLEE: Right. Were your -- was your father involved in mining?

AYERS: My father was. Of course, my father actually died prior to my first birthday, so --

KLEE: Is that right?

AYERS: -- I didn't really know him, but I had uncles and other relatives who kind of filled in in a wonderful way for him. I had an Uncle Bill, Bill [sounds like Main], who was sort of a surrogate father to me. And again, like I say, in the absence of a dad, it was wonderful to have somebody to kind of fill in for him.

KLEE: And where did you attend your school?

AYERS: Well, I began initially at Insull Elementary. And that was an 00:03:00interesting situation, because the county line actually split Insull, and so we had one building that was in Harlan County and one building that was in Bell County. And the school was supported by both boards of education, which was interesting. And then I also -- Insull closed while I was still in school, and I ended up at a school called Tuggle, which was just down the road from Insull, and went on to graduate from Bell County High School.

KLEE: Okay. Well, young people your age, juniors and seniors that were in Bell County, what were -- what did they think about higher education?

AYERS: Not much, not much. The mining industry was still going strong at that particular point in time, and a lot of people thought about working in the mines, without question. I told someone that you either 00:04:00went to the mines or you became a teacher or a preacher or you went in the military. I chose to go in the military.

KLEE: Okay. (Ayers chuckles)

AYERS: Primarily because I -- the Marine recruiter lived less than a mile from me. And one of my best friends, [sounds like Jerry Houston], and I got to know him quite well. He signed us both up, and we went in under the buddy plan.

KLEE: I see. What year was that?

AYERS: Went in in 1960 and got out in 1964. Both of us got an early out to go to college.

KLEE: Okay.

AYERS: And both of us came to school here at Southeast.

KLEE: So why did Southeast enter into your dec- -- the decision at that point?

AYERS: Well, it was local, and I kind of wanted to be home for a while after having been in the Marine Corps for almost four years. And of course, I was married at that point in time. I got married my last year in the Corps. And then my wife was from the area too, and then we 00:05:00just felt it would be best for us if we started here. And of course, I think we were a little pleased with the UK affiliation. You know, we were all big UK fans, and while it wasn't the same, obviously, you still had that connection, which was important for us, I think.

KLEE: Tell me about the college at that point. How many buildings was there?

AYERS: There was one building, the building we're in, Newman Hall, at that particular point in time. And I think we might have had, you know, 300 or 400 students. The director at that point in time was Paul Clark. And Dr. Clark left Southeast and went to Milligan College over in Tennessee and was replaced by J.C. Falkenstein, for whom we now have a building named. And just a remarkably talented individual who came here from Bourbon County where he had been superintendent of 00:06:00schools and actually died on this campus, running.

KLEE: Oh, okay.

AYERS: Just a good man.

KLEE: Did you have much contact with him as a student? I mean --

AYERS: I did, because I was president of student council. I founded the newspaper,The Southeasterner, which, by the way, is still going strong.

KLEE: I've got a copy here.

AYERS: And actually, I think, as a result of my being a little older and having all that military service, I probably assumed a leadership role. And Dr. Falkenstein was very involved with students, and so I got to know him quite well and was so very fond of him.

KLEE: Are there any incidents that come to mind, in particular, where you had to deal with him? Did you have any problems with the paper or as a student council?

AYERS: No. He was always very supportive of everything that we were doing, because the paper was, you know, kind of a -- something that he felt we needed, and you know, provided some support for -- not 00:07:00financial support, but moral support in the community because we had to pay for the paper with the ads that we actually ran. He helped us with some local merchants, I can remember that. He wanted, you know, the student government to be active. In fact I learned a lot from Dr. Falkenstein. He understood that students were our reason for being. It was not just a matter of their coming here and paying tuition and taking classes. He wanted them to be involved to some degree with decision-making, and that impressed me.

KLEE: Right.

AYERS: I learned from him.

KLEE: Tell me about the student body at that point. What kind of -- who was the typical student at Southeast in the early '60s?

AYERS: We were pretty much a traditional institution at that point in time, and so most of your folks had not graduated from college [high school] very long when they came here. I was the exception. We did have some veterans here, but not many, so I would think our average age 00:08:00would have been in the 19-20-21 area.

KLEE: So you got typical students, and they were studying what? What kinds of --

AYERS: Almost all of them were in a transfer program at that particular point in time. We didn't begin to add a lot of technical programs until later on. And so for all intents and purposes, you know, we were a center of the University of Kentucky and not a community college. And even after we were designated as a community college, it was a long time before we became comprehensive.

KLEE: Right, right. So explain that, why -- by saying you weren't really comprehensive at that time, although that term started to be thrown -- started to be used early. What did that mean?

AYERS: Well, it just means that not only do you offer a strong transfer curriculum, which is basic to any community college, but you have a lot of technical programming as well, and you prepare people for immediate employment, either through certificates or diplomas or associate of 00:09:00applied science degrees. And in addition to that, I think it also suggests that you're involved with the community. You have a very active community and economic development office, as we do here. You engage the community in ways that we didn't early on, there's no question about that. The word community didn't mean nearly as much, I think, as it means to us now.

KLEE: You and your wife live in -- where while you were attending school here?

AYERS: We had an apartment in Cumberland, over a --

KLEE: Okay. And what was this community like in the mid '60s?

AYERS: It was a bustling community then, unlike now of course. Cumberland was always dependant primarily on Benham and Lynch for its livelihood. And as the mining industry waned and employment started to go down, so did Cumberland. And Cumberland suffers from the fact 00:10:00that it's not a county seat. You know, I work -- we work primarily in three counties, and county seats just do a lot better by virtue of the fact that all of the county business takes place there. So Cumberland really has deteriorated, John, a lot more than most of us would like.

KLEE: Faculty at that point, were there a lot of people came from outside the region to come here and teach?

AYERS: Yes, we had several people who were from outside the region at that particular point in time. I can remember that my English instructor was a graduate of IU, and of course, Kentucky was competitive with IU, even at that point in time.

KLEE: Right. (Laughs)

AYERS: I used to have quite a lot of interesting conversations with him. My biology instructor, I think, was a graduate of Penn State. So we 00:11:00had really a good mix, as we do now, of folks from outside the area and folks from the local area.

KLEE: Was there anyone -- any that -- any of those faculties -- you know, faculty and staff sometimes stand out either because they're eccentric or they're well-liked. Were there any faculty members that kind of stood out in that time period?

AYERS: We had a guy by the name of Lee Pennington. Lee taught Writing of Fiction, and I taught -- I took a couple of his courses and had a short story published, by the way, and a number of poems. I really had thought I was going to be a writer, but I learned later that I was not nearly as good as I thought. But Lee was and is a disciple of Jessie Stuart. And while Jessie had some trials and tribulations that he had to undergo as a young man, I think Lee also wanted to have a pedigree 00:12:00or legacy which was comparable to Jessie's. So he always alleged that as a result of one of the student publications that was turned out, in which some mention was made about the local sheriff, that he was run out of Harlan County. And he said he had to leave Harlan County in the trunk of a car. And of course, he did leave Harlan County, and he and his wife, Joy, went up to Jefferson to teach and retired up there. I've always thought that Lee probably embellished that some, and you know, made it out to be a little bit more than it was actually. But he was --

KLEE: Gave him a little pedigree, I guess.

AYERS: Yeah. But he was a good motivator, there's no question about that. And he convinced us that we could write, so while we were not very good, probably, as most students aren't, we were at least prolific. We wrote a lot. (Laughs) But Lee was a fascinating man. 00:13:00And I guess one of the most fascinating people I've ever met was our maintenance and operations foreman, Fitzhugh Craft, Ulysses Simpson Fitzhugh Craft. Fitzhugh was an educated man, had a degree from Virginia Tech, and just a guy who could do almost anything. But his claim to fame was he played the saw, the hand saw. And he was always doing concerts for the students. And on many occasions we didn't want the concerts, but of course we became willing participants, I guess. Sometimes it would get us out of class. And he also had a trained dog, Ginger, and he would play the saw, and Ginger would do all sorts of routines which he had taught her. He'd dress her up as Santa Claus, for example, or as a cowboy or whatever. And Ginger is buried on 00:14:00campus; we had a nice little ceremony for her, I guess, about ten years ago. Fitzhugh has passed on, and we scattered his ashes on the campus as well. But I remember I was a student worker, and Fitzhugh and I made a trip to Lexington to pick up some supplies. And I don't know whether you know a lot about the UK campus or not -- you probably do; you've been around as long as I have -- but the maintenance building where all of the supplies were stored is just across the street from the college of education, and there's this big, huge sidewalk. And I'll never forget -- Fitzhugh was not a very good driver; in fact I drove back -- Fitzhugh took a left on the sidewalk, and students were scurrying, they getting out of the way. And it's almost like he didn't even know they were there, didn't know they were there. But he was a great -- he's reputed to have burned out at least four or five clutches 00:15:00in almost every vehicle that the college had, because he would pull out and drive in third gear.

KLEE: Oh, gosh. (Laughs)

AYERS: He just stands out in my memory, just a great guy. Everybody in the community loved Fitzhugh.

KLEE: Where did your educational career take you after Southeast? Where'd you go? Where did you transfer to?

AYERS: I went on to UK and got a bachelors degree in English and then came back to work here as the Associate Director of Upward Bound.

KLEE: What year was that?

AYERS: That was 1969, and I had completed all of the work for a master's degree in English and was going to write a thesis, but never could get things worked out. So I went back and completed a couple more courses and finally got a master's degree in English. And after that, some few 00:16:00years ago, actually almost twenty now, of course, completed an EdD in Higher Education Administration at East Tennessee State University.

KLEE: In the late '60s -- and I'm going to probably ask you to give me some things secondhand too -- you came here as a student not soon after the college started, really.

AYERS: Right.

KLEE: And I guess really the first year, maybe, it was designated a community college, or maybe that was 1960. Well, I'd have to check the date.

AYERS: Well, it opened in 1960.

KLEE: Yeah, that's right, yeah. From your acquaintances and so forth, is there -- were there people in the community that stood out as being big promoters of the college, either at that point or maybe stayed around and you had dealings with later?

AYERS: Well, I think the entire community was always very proud of the community [college], and most of the local leadership, I think, was very supportive of everything that was going on here. A couple of 00:17:00people stand out. C. R. Chrisman was one. C. R. was a vice president at the Guarantee Deposit Bank, which is now a BB&T branch. He -- well, Chrisman Hall is named for C. R. But he was the kind of individual that you could always turn to if you had a project that someone needed to work on. If you had a particular need that was unmet that you needed to get the community to get behind, you could call C. R. and he would get the folks together.

KLEE: I see.

AYERS: He was so loved and respected, that a call from C. R. would always get the job done.

KLEE: I see.

AYERS: I'll tell you a funny little story. Roger Noe, who is still on our faculty here, of course, was in the legislature for a number of years, Chairman of the House Education Committee, and probably the primary architect of KERA, at least one of them. But when Roger 00:18:00ran for office the first time, I was his campaign chairman in this district. And he lost rather badly, and he replaced me with C. R. the next time. (Laughter) And he said, "I got a mandate." But C. R. was probably the most loved and respected person that I have known in this area. So he absolutely was always instrumental in whatever was going on at the college. Of course, he had a lot of political contacts too, John, and he could pick up the phone and talk to people in Frankfort or Washington, for that matter. Another individual who has been so very helpful from, really, my early days is F. N. Hazen, who is our board chair now. He's now -- see, I guess, is 85, the former mayor of Neon, the former mayor of Cumberland, the executive director of 00:19:00the Cumberland Valley Area Development District, a liaison for Senator Dee Huddleston, and so he had all of the contacts that were really important to us. And --

KLEE: His name's Hansen?

AYERS: Hazen, H-A-Z-E-N.

KLEE: Yeah, Hazen.

AYERS: Yeah, just a great person that has worked with us on so many projects.

KLEE: And he's on your board of directors?

AYERS: He's the chair.

KLEE: Chair of the board of directors, yeah. Okay.

AYERS: He was reappointed a year or so ago. Vernon Cole, Vernon was the president of Guarantee Deposit Bank and Harlan National Bank. Those two actually merged. And Vernon was the chair of the board of directors for a number of years, and like -- now, see, Vernon had a lot of political acumen, and he helped us so very, very much in those 00:20:00formative years. Senator Freeman and his family have always been very supportive of the college and again, especially when Glenn got involved in politics, serving initially as a legislator and then the second time around as a senator. He's helped us tremendously. Roger Noe, of course, when Roger was in the legislature helped us to get the Appalachian Center and our Middlesboro campus. You know, both of those actually were approved while Roger was in Frankfort, along with Senator Charlie Berger. But I think there's been a -- just strong support from throughout the community. And I'm probably leaving several people out, but you know, I can call on almost everyone to help the college, and 00:21:00usually they will respond in a positive way. And that's certainly been true since I was -- since I became president.

KLEE: I'm going to pick up on your career history a little bit and then come back to some of those issues. You started out here as a -- with the Upward Bound program. And then how did your career progress from there?

AYERS: By the way, I tell people that the Upward Bound job was the best one I've had at Southeast. (Laughter) It really was a fun thing. You know, we identified students from disadvantaged backgrounds that we thought had the ability to do college work and went out and recruited them and mentored them and provided educational opportunities for them. I worked for a man, by the way, named Harold Patterson, who has since died. Harold was a great man; I had much respect for him.

KLEE: Let me follow up on that just briefly about the Upward Bound. I 00:22:00think some people might be surprised that there's an African-American population here in the area. And I'm sure you had -- you worked with the African-American students as well as white students. Of course, there's a lot of disadvantaged families, I guess, by definition -- by the government's definition.

AYERS: Yeah.

KLEE: How has serving that community worked?

AYERS: You know, I tell people that Upward Bound kind of helped to define who we are as a college. I think it got us out away, you know, from Cumberland, into the community, and made us aware of what some of the needs were. And you're right, we do have -- we did have a large African-American community here. By the way, the program director now is an African American, Carolyn Sundy, who's been with us for a number of years.

KLEE: I see.

AYERS: We recruited heavily, obviously, in Lynch, where there was a large black population, and in Harlan, where there was a large black population. We admitted sixty students to the program and still do. We 00:23:00now admit students not only from Harlan County, I think, but from Bell and Letcher as well. But Upward Bound, as I mentioned, kind of got us out into the community and made us aware of so many of the needs that we just didn't know existed, and I think helped us to kind of realign ourselves a little with some of those needs. And we started looking for opportunities to serve disadvantaged populations in other ways.

KLEE: So you went from Upper Bound, then --

AYERS: I went from Upper Bound to -- actually, I then became the director of Student Special Services, which, like Upward Bound, was a Title IV program. Special Services served disadvantaged college students. Then we merged the programs, and I became director of Upward Bound and Special Services and became my old boss's boss, which was an interesting situation because I loved and respected him, and that 00:24:00worked out especially well. After that, I moved to the instructional side of the house and started teaching. I became an English instructor and later became a division chair for English and Communications and Humanities. Did a little public relations work, John. Having worked at a community college, you know we have to be generalists and have to wear a lot of hats along the way. I did some p.r. work for the college as well. At the time I was chosen as president, I was a faculty member and division chair. To the best of my knowledge, I was the first faculty member to be chosen as a president at a community college, and I was always proud of that fact. [Ayers speaks to someone 00:25:00entering the room]

KLEE: What year was that?

AYERS: February of 1987, I became president.

KLEE: You were at -- if you wanted to take a lunch break or -- I'd like to get you in while I'm here.

AYERS: No, no, I'm fine. No, I'm fine. No, no, let's do this.

KLEE: You were at UK, lived in Lexington. You had other opportunities. What prompted you to come back to Cumberland or this area?

AYERS: I don't know, to be honest with you. I've thought a lot about that, and it might very well have been Upward Bound, because when I was a student I had worked as a tutor in Upward Bound and just became so enamored with that program and, I think, what it was doing. You know, my sense of a need to serve, I think, was heightened really. And I thought that, you know, the program was doing so much good for 00:26:00the community, just identifying students and working with them, that otherwise probably would never think about going to college. So maybe Upward Bound was really the thing that attracted me back here. And you know, once I got back here, I just really fell in love with the place. And you know, this became my mission, and obviously, the area became my home. I've had the opportunity to leave, but am so glad I've stayed.

KLEE: How does -- how do these -- how does this tri-city community -- and again, I don't know if you have heard any of these stories, the name Southeast, was that a name -- do you know the origin of that name?

AYERS: That was a name, I think, that actually was decided on by UK. Of course, it was a name given to the center, just like Northern was given to -- and I think it was geographical, you know.


KLEE: Sure.

AYERS: Of course, we started out, as I understand it, with four centers scattered about the state. So I just think it designated the geographical area that this particular campus was supposed to serve.

KLEE: And you -- again, this would all be second-hand, but do you know any origin of why Southeast was chosen? I know that, you know, Northern had a center, and I'm trying to think, maybe --

AYERS: Henderson had one.

KLEE: Maybe Hopkinsville too or --

AYERS: No, I think Henderson, Ashland --

KLEE: That's right.

AYERS: Yeah. And Southeast and Northern.

KLEE: Northern.

AYERS: Yeah, yeah. Why UK chose to come here? Well, this is secondhand, but I've done a lot of research, obviously. Apparently, at that point in time a number of colleges and universities around the nation were beginning to look at centers. That was kind of "the thing" at that 00:28:00particular point in time. And Kentucky's always been a little behind the curve in our education, but somebody decided since the other states had centers, that maybe UK needed some as well. And initially, I think, the plans were to go to Harlan. In fact, I don't think there's any question about that, but the word got out in Cumberland that UK was considering Harlan as a site for a new center. And the folks up here just kind of organized themselves almost immediately and began to make a case for the college being located here. Now, the reason in my mind that that happened was ARH [Appalachian Regional Hospital], which was than Miners Memorial Hospital, had just built a hospital in Harlan, which was supposed to have been built in Cumberland. In fact, it was -- the decision had been made. They had chosen a site and everything up here. And Cumberland lost that, and I think the people in this 00:29:00community, the tri-city area, said, "Well, they took the hospital from us, and we ought to get this college." And they just organized themselves almost immediately, from what I can determine, as opposed to Harlan, which just kind of sat back and said, "Well, this is ours."

KLEE: Right.

AYERS: Made all of the political contacts that needed to be made, and apparently we had some folks here who really could talk to Governor Chandler. Got UK to not only look at a site at Harlan, but to start looking at some sites up here. Got International Harvester and Mr. Newman, as you've probably heard, to work with IH and agree to donate the property for the college, and it all just sort of came together. And before Harlan knew it, you know, Cumberland had the college.

KLEE: Had the college.

AYERS: But have you heard about the convoy?


KLEE: Yes, but go ahead and tell --

AYERS: Well, as I understand it -- and by the way, we've got video footage on this --

KLEE: Is that right?

AYERS: -- in the archives -- but apparently they put together about 100 cars and drove from Cumberland to Frankfort --

KLEE: Which was quite a trek.

AYERS: -- to make their case. Yeah, it had to take about six or seven hours in those days, I guess, to get there. And UK, I think, and the Governor just saw that there was just so much support for the college here that they decided to put it here. And it didn't hurt that you had two of the largest coal corporations in the area that were located in the tri-cities, IH and US Steel, big names.

KLEE: I never got the specifics of -- Mr. Newman was the superintendent that really pulled it together and went to his headquarters and asked about giving some land. Do you -- have you ever heard, did someone approach him or did he volunteer that or it just kind of came up?

AYERS: I don't know the exact story, but again, the mayor of Cumberland 00:31:00at that particular time was H. P. Helton. And I know that, you know, H. P. was very involved with the Lions Club. And as I understand it, the Cumberland Lions Club was trying to start something in Benham. They had a Lions Club in Benham, and I think somehow those two were connected. They might have had a program at the Lions Club in Cumberland that he attended, you know, in preparation for starting something up --

KLEE: Starting a new one.

AYERS: -- in Benham. But H. P. was very involved. And Sam Isaac, of course, who came after H. P., who is Teresa Isaac's father, by the way --

KLEE: I didn't realize that.

AYERS: -- the mayor of Lexington. Not for long, but she's still -- she came back as our graduation speaker about three years ago.

KLEE: I see.

AYERS: But it all just came together, but it came together as a result 00:32:00of hard work, there's no question about that. And really the coal companies provided, obviously, a lot of leadership. There's no question that IH was instrumental, and I think US Steel was always willing to help, if need be. And again, when companies as large as US Steel and International Harvester spoke, people in Frankfort, you know, they heard them.

KLEE: Right. The communities -- those two companies were in decline, I guess, about the same time this college was being founded. Am I correct?

AYERS: Actually, they were not in decline at that point in time.

KLEE: Okay.

AYERS: No, that was the late '50s, and both of them went on well into -- I guess IH into the '70s, and I guess US Steel probably into the '70s as well. Yeah, yeah.

KLEE: So how did being located here in this tri-city, how did this 00:33:00shape -- how did that affect the college? How did the community have an impact on the college, I guess is what I'm asking, its nature, its personality, maybe?

AYERS: Well, it's hard to say. This is an interesting community, interesting in the sense that it is a little bit more cosmopolitan -- or at least was for a number of years -- primarily because we brought in a workforce from Eastern Europe and from the Deep South. You know, you don't think of Eastern Kentucky being African-American or Catholic, but this area was.

KLEE: Yeah, and that was bringing in the miners.

AYERS: Yeah, yeah. And they kind of influenced the college. I think we probably were a little bit more like a college might have 00:34:00been in the industrial Northeast than we were in the South. And I think the flavor of the institution probably was influenced some by that. And obviously, we had people like John Schroeder, who was the superintendent of US Steel, to serve on our board. And all of those folks had an impact on us. In another sense, I think the coal influence has been strong because we have -- we've always seen the need, at least from the early '70s, to offer a coal mining curriculum. We're the only college that, once we started that curriculum, never dropped it. You know, we have been offering coal mining courses and support services for the mining industry for a long, long time. With 00:35:00the recent boom in the coal economy now, we've got coal academies, and Hazard Community College and Big Sandy and Madisonville are also part of that equation, but each of them had dropped their program. We were the only ones that hadn't, so I think -- I see the crane.

KLEE: Yeah, I was going to --

AYERS: It's kind of interesting.

KLEE: I've seen the coal trucks.

AYERS: ----------(??) the coal that's headed down the tracks now. But I think the influence, maybe, of the leadership from US Steel and International Harvester in the early years was probably more profound than we know.

KLEE: Obviously, those other colleges dropped the coal mining programs because of a lack of enrollment or lack of interest. You -- your people have been able to maintain the connections and --

AYERS: And maybe they were here from the beginning --

KLEE: I see. Right.

AYERS: -- I guess is what I'm saying. It was impressed upon us early on that there was a great need here for that kind of training. And we have done it differently, John. We have tailored our program to 00:36:00the needs of the industry and we deliver on site. You know, we have invested heavily in special training panels and equipment that are portable that we take to the mine site. Most of our training takes place on site and not here. The situation, of course, began to evolve as we moved off campus. And obviously the communities in Middlesboro and Whitesburg are altogether different than what have here in Cumberland. And those patterns, I think, have reflected the kind of influences that we had in those communities.

KLEE: I want to get back to that, but I want to ask -- I want to flip that question around. I asked how the community shaped the nature of the college. How has the college shaped the community?

AYERS: I think, as I mentioned a moment ago, programs like Upward Bound have helped to define who the college was. And I think that the college 00:37:00has demonstrated to the community that we need to be a caring and compassionate people and that we need to be service-oriented and that all of us, regardless of the institution that we serve, really needs to be focused on helping people. And we've been able to demonstrate, I think, with so many success stories that, as we help individuals in this area, we help the area as well, you know. Every -- I think we've been able to demonstrate that it's all tied together, it's all tied together. That we as an institution don't need to sit back and just take students in who show up on our doorsteps. We need to be engaged with them and engaged with the community. So I think they see us as an activist community here and have become our partners. There are so many strategic alliances that we have. Maybe unfortunately, we 00:38:00sometimes have not asked enough of the community, and we've tried to do too many things ourselves. We're beginning to get away from that, you know. We understand now that what we ought to be is a catalyst. We don't need to try to do everything, but we need to identify programs and problems and get the community involved as much as we can.

KLEE: I'm not that much of a student of the area, but -- and this is true of the whole state, but there's a lot of different political entities, particularly right here. You've got three, I guess, incorporated cities that you've dealt with, and then county governments and so forth. Has the college played a role in pulling some of those disparate parts together, having --

AYERS: Well, in the tri-city area, we've had very little luck in doing that. By the way, we have a proposal before ARC right now to do that very thing. Some few years ago we got involved, John, in the Rural Community College initiative, which was a Ford Foundation-funded 00:39:00project, which set about to engage rural community colleges in their communities once again, to get them involved in spurring economic development and improving access for students. And at that particular point in time, I think we kind of took a new look at ourselves as an institution and put together what we called a think tank, made up of community folk, people from throughout the region, just to identify problems that we saw and to try to come up with some creative solutions, again, not necessarily solutions that the college would provide, but solutions that would be provided somewhere with some resource from within the community.

KLEE: You were talking about -- how has that progressed? I should follow up on that. You've had the meetings, and -- is that ongoing?

AYERS: Oh, yeah, yeah. We -- actually our CCI is no longer funded 00:40:00by Ford, but we have founded what's called a Rural Community College Alliance now, which is self-sustaining. I was the founding chair of that, and we have colleges from throughout the nation that are involved in that, as well as some from Canada, some from Ireland, and we have one member from India now as well.

KLEE: That's interesting.

AYERS: And we have learned so much from other rural communities. You have a tendency to think that you're unique. And obviously from a cultural standpoint, most of us are. But it's interesting that most of the problems that are faced by rural communities are everywhere. They're everywhere.

KLEE: Do you -- have you -- do you have to attend meetings, I guess, around the country on that?

AYERS: I do. I no longer am chair, but I'm the treasurer. And the money is kept at Southeast, by the way, at our local bank. Yeah, we had our national meeting this year in Lexington, by the way. And next 00:41:00year it will be in Albuquerque.

KLEE: I see. I want to ask you about the UK connection. This started as a center. It was a center and then it dovetailed quickly into a community college. How has that -- how did that UK connection work, maybe advantages, disadvantages?

AYERS: Sure. Well, I thought I worked probably better than it did. I was one of the individuals, along with Ed Hughes from Hazard and Pat Lake from Henderson, that really fought to keep the community college system as part of UK. And all of us did that primarily, because UK is all we'd ever known. And UK did all right by us, there's no question about that. But honestly, John, KCTCS has done a much better job -- and I tell everybody that -- primarily because all KCTCS is concerned about are these local colleges. UK had to be concerned 00:42:00first and foremost about Lexington and the medical center and what was going on there. And they probably did as best they could under those circumstances. And I'm always going to be a strong UK supporter, there's no question about that. I thought the affiliation was good for us, but I think it really was time that we evolved into a stand- alone system. But that UK name, I think, was really important for us initially, and we might not be nearly as strong today had it not been for that affiliation. As I mentioned to you, I probably came here as a student because of that UK name, you know. And some other kids probably did as well. You see, when you don't have that comprehensive community college in place that you need to attract folks with programs and lots of other things, sometimes a name was the thing that got them here. But now Southeast and Maysville and other community colleges 00:43:00have developed, I think, programming that will attract students, there's no question about that. And we've got support services in place, I think, to help them once they get here. Of course, we've had those in place for some time. But I can remember being in Frankfort, of course, when House Bill 1 was being considered. I, along with a few other people, actually stayed up there to lobby with the legislative delegation and to try to make our case for remaining a part of UK. Interesting times, interesting times. House Bill 1, actually, was not just about removing the community colleges from the auspices of UK, but I think for improving higher education in general around the state. I don't know that it's succeeded, to be honest with you. I think right 00:44:00now the Council on Higher Education has pretty much been stripped of all of its power. They're not doing many of the things that House Bill 1 and some companion legislation promised. It's really not a very good time for higher education in Kentucky at this particular point in time, to my way of thinking. We've lost some funding over the last few years, got a little back last year, and the promise looks fairly good this year. But we've gone through some difficult times, to be honest with you. And there's just a general lack of coordination, I think, on the state level at this particular point in time, which worries me. Too much duplication; nobody looks at that anymore. We don't really mesh with the regional universities nearly as much as we should. That was the promise, seamlessness. I keep hearing -- I can hear that in my dreams. But we have as much difficulty or more in transferring now 00:45:00to public institutions as we did then. And what's really interesting, though, that's happening is that the private institutions are stepping up to work with us. Right now we have Midway College on our campus, we have Lincoln Memorial University, we have Union College, we've had Cumberland College here, we have Lindsey Wilson. All of them are coming here with full programs. It's almost impossible for us to get some of the regional universities to talk with us about doing that sort of thing.

KLEE: Yeah. All that's been a recent development, those privates coming in and working.

AYERS: The last four or five years, yeah.

KLEE: When -- you were under the -- you've been president under both these administrations, UK and KCTCS, and became -- were working here all throughout the '70s and -- talk about the changes in students and curriculum as time progressed.


AYERS: Well, the changes in curriculum really have been pronounced, there's no question about that. When I first came here, as I mentioned to you, as a student, almost all of the coursework, you know, led to a transfer degree. When I came back here as a staff member with -- excuse me, with Upward Bound --

[End Side 1, Tape 1]

[Begin Side 2, Tape 1]

KLEE: This is side two of a tape at Southeast Community & Technical College. This is John Klee, and I'm interviewing the president of Southeast, Doctor Bruce Ayers. You were talking about the changes in curriculum when you came here. It was mostly as -- a transfer environment.

AYERS: Yeah. And when I came back as a staff member with Upward Bound, we began to add some technical programs. Appalachian Regional Hospital 00:47:00in Harlan had a nursing program, for example, at that particular point in time. And they, of course with our full support, decided to discontinue that, and Southeast picked up an associate degree program in nursing. And then we began to add civil engineering, and we began to add a business curriculum that would lead to an applied science degree, and you know, to look at other workforce needs in the area that we could meet with applied science programs. And you know, we've added all manner of programs since that point in time.

KLEE: There's a long list on the back of your schedule.

AYERS: Yeah, yeah. Probably about -- I'd say at least forty to fifty programs that are offered here.

KLEE: Right. And the student changes, how have you seen students change?

AYERS: Well, we've -- the student body's age, for example, has gone 00:48:00up significantly. I saw something from our fact book recently, and I think our average age is almost 28 now. And as I mentioned, when I came to school here, most of the -- my fellow students were recent high school graduates. So obviously we're doing a much better job in engaging the workforce. All those miners that we're training, John, now are older folks, for the most part. And we've worked awfully hard to attract people back to school who may have been out for a while, either with special opportunities for support or in some instances, of course, special programming . The Ready-to-Work program that I know you're aware of is a good example of that. It's for welfare recipients, almost all of whom are mothers. We've got, at last count, I think, about 140 students enrolled in that program. And by the way, they have a higher GPA than the student body as a whole. They're 00:49:00graduating from some very tough programs, nursing, radiography, respiratory care. The retention rate is higher for that group of students. It's kind of a follow-up to the old Upward Bound tradition that I think we established back in the 1960s, our willingness to reach out. And I know everybody in the community college system has Ready- to-Work, but I think we probably do it better here than they do at some other places because of our history and tradition. It's part of who we are, and I think we understand how important these individuals are. You know, we're all about empowering people, about changing people. And I keep saying to folks, students like those enrolled in Ready-to- Work are so important to this area. They are the future. John, they're not going to be going anywhere, you know. This is home for them now 00:50:00and for the next thirty, forty, fifty years, as long as they live. And so it's incumbent on us as an institution to do a good job with all of these folks. I cringe anymore when I hear people say we export our best and brightest. That's just not true. A lot of the best and brightest remain behind, and what a wonderful opportunity we have to reach out to those students.

KLEE: And some of that non-traditional shift was beginning in the '70s and '80s.

AYERS: Yes, it actually began -- I came back here pretty much full-time in 1969, and I'd say by the mid- to late '70s that evolution was pretty much complete. Now obviously, we have changed programming since that time, but we're phasing in and phasing out, based on what the needs of the area are.

KLEE: One of the things that happened is expansion into other actual 00:51:00areas and full-blown campuses. Tell me how that took place. I mean, was it incremental? Was it something planned out?

AYERS: (Laughs) I don't know. I do know that when I became president we had, I think, around 1,000 students. And in my interviews with Dr. Wethington, who was head of the community college system at that point in time, I told him I thought Southeast could grow to about 1,400. And I did tell him I thought we would have to kind of move off campus. We had started to do that, but we really hadn't made a real commitment to it to that point in time. We were just not attracting students to Cumberland, especially from throughout what we defined as our service area, that being Middlesboro to the south, and then to the northeast, 00:52:00Letcher County. And we started offering some evening courses in Middlesboro, and those just really proved to be very successful. About the same time, again, we kind of beefed up what we were doing in Letcher County. This was after I became president. And we just saw tremendous potential in both of those communities. And I got a call from the mayor of Whitesburg, by the way, in 1988. It was after -- I hadn't been president for more than a year.

KLEE: Now, who was that?

AYERS: That was Jim Asher, Jim Asher. Jim is a prominent lawyer in Whitesburg and a graduate of Southeast, by the way, which didn't hurt us any. He came over here to school. And he said -- and Red Sellars went with me. Red is the longtime Dean of Student Affairs. He said that he really would like for us to have a permanent facility in Whitesburg. And I said I'd love for us to have one too, but we just 00:53:00didn't have the resources, and I didn't think we could come up with the money. Of course, he had something in the back of his mind, and he smiled and said, "Well, we're going to have a building that we'll have access to pretty soon. And what if we could renovate that building for you?" And I said, "Well obviously, we'd take a look at it." And it was an old Coca-Cola plant. And I passed that idea on to Dr. Wethington. One of the things that he would do, he would always support the community. And he said, "If they want that, let's go for it." And so long story short, that community raised over $1 million and renovated the old Coca-Cola plant, and that was our first building. They recently gave that to the college, and it was appraised at $1,800,000.

KLEE: So about what -- you said that was in '88 when you floated that idea.

AYERS: We actually opened that building in 1990. It had 350 students, I 00:54:00think, something like that.

KLEE: So there was a need right there.

AYERS: There really was, there really was. And most of those students would not have traveled to Cumberland. Of course, they had Pine Mountain between Cumberland and Whitesburg, which is -- was hard to get over then. It's not quite as hard to get over now. Situation in Middlesboro was kind of comparable to that. We just finally figured out that Middlesboro was the largest community in our service area, and those students were not coming here. And so we started really offering courses at Middlesboro High School and identified a strong group of adjunct faculty down there. And then in 1989, we made the decision to lease a building -- not lease a building, but lease the third story of the First State Bank in Middlesboro. And of course, 00:55:00the catch was that they were going to give it to us rent-free for a year. And so we actually went in and renovated that building. And things just took off in Middlesboro, and so we made a request to the legislature for funds to build a facility -- facilities in Middlesboro. And we actually joined hand with the local Kentucky Tech institution at that point in time and put in a request together. And so we got the funding to build a three-building campus in Middlesboro that was shared jointly by Southeast Community College and the Bell County Area Technology Center. So we were working with a Kentucky Tech institution 00:56:00long before anybody thought of KCTCS. And maybe that's why merger has gone so smoothly here, because we were sharing a campus in Middlesboro, you know, long before anybody thought of KCTCS. But had a wonderful sit- -- had wonderful support from Middlesboro. The site where we're located in Middlesboro actually belonged to the airport board and -- which was kind of independent of the city of Middlesboro. And so the city actually raised $270,000 and purchased that site from the airport board for us in Middlesboro. Some of the people in Middlesboro that have been so very helpful to us, John, Bob Vaughn, who is still on our 00:57:00board of directors, was actually on the Council on Higher Education at the time and was very, very helpful to us. Troy Welch, who was mayor of Middlesboro at the time, was very helpful to us. Glen Denham, who is now deceased, a local lawyer who just went out of his way to cut through the red tape and to make sure that we were going to locate somewhere in Bell County. We actually hired a planning firm to choose a site for us in Bell County, and we looked at five different sites. We ended up choosing Middlesboro, primarily because it was in the city limits, and we didn't want to be outside the city limits. All the other sites were wonderful and beautiful, but they were not in an incorporated area. But Middlesboro has done especially well.


KLEE: In addition to Mr. Asher at Whitesburg, were there --

AYERS: Penny Ritter was one.

KLEE: Penny Ritter.

AYERS: Pauline "Penny" Ritter probably was the most influential person in the Letcher County area. She was so helpful with the fundraising project over there. And Maynard Hogg. That's spelled H-O-G-G. By the way, we just -- the Whitesburg Education Foundation, which is still very supportive of the college, just recently gave us $238,000. And Maynard and Penny were very active in making sure that we got those funds. Actually the funds come to us, primarily from Maynard. He owns a lot of coal properties that are being mined now, and all the royalties that he gets from that mining he's giving to the foundation. So he told me the other day, "Bruce, there's a lot more where this 00:59:00came from." And so we're thankful for that.

KLEE: That's wonderful.

AYERS: Yeah. But Whitesburg and Middlesboro both are just there because we got so much support from the community. Had the communities not stepped forward, there's no way that we could have gotten the funding that we needed to build the buildings to put the campuses in place. Again, we went for over ten years in Whitesburg without having a state building. I mean, what we had belonged to the foundation.

KLEE: Sometimes -- and I was going to ask you, politically, you've mentioned Senator Freeman, who I talked to, and Roger Noe. Are there any stories behind some of the buildings? Sometimes -- I know at Maysville our legislator essentially traded a vote for a building sometimes. Does any of that come to mind? Or was there any similar circumstance or --

AYERS: Well, I don't know that anything like that went on. It very well could have --

KLEE: It might have.


AYERS: -- because obviously Roger was in a position of power and prestige, Chairman of the House Education Committee, and on A & R, I think, for the last few years of his tenure. And by the way, Senator Charlie Berger, Charlie represented Harlan County, and Charlie helped tremendously with these projects as well. He was one of the most powerful people in the senate based on seniority. I don't think he ever took full advantage of that seniority, to be honest with you, but Charlie helped Roger, I think, with the projects. I wouldn't be surprised if some horse-trading didn't go on. It -- that's part of the political process, I guess. And legislators tend to be enamored with buildings, and we got several. You know, we've done okay, I think, with --

KLEE: I was going to ask you that too, just to kind of go around campus, 01:01:00and just say a few words about some of the people. Now Ed Godbey was already gone when you came back as a student. Is that correct?

AYERS: Yeah, yeah. But Ed has -- he left, but he's never left. He absolutely loves this institution. And of course, we named the building for Ed, not because he was the first president, because -- but because he set up a charitable remainder trust that's worth almost $700,000.

KLEE: I didn't realize that.

AYERS: And when Ed dies, we get that money. He says, "Bruce, good news and bad news. I'm going to leave you a lot of money, but I'm going to live a long time." But Ed has always been there for us. He's -- you know, he had his own -- he left her and went to SACS and worked for them through their education improvement program for a number of years. And then he broke that program away from SACS and became independent and consulted with colleges and universities around the South, probably 01:02:00for twenty years. So he helped us with a number of Title III programs and never charged us anything. I mean, he was just there for us. Had wonderful contacts in Washington, which he still has, by the way. So Ed never really left Southeast. You know, we've always been close to his heart. He's from Pulaski County. His wife is from Perry County, the daughter of a coal miner. So Southeast means a great deal to them, a great deal to them.

KLEE: And you have Chrisman Hall. You mentioned --

AYERS: Chrisman Hall was named for C. R. Chrisman, who was our benefactor in so many ways, not necessarily financially, at least in terms of what he could give, because I don't know that C. R. really had a lot of money, but he had all of the political contacts which helped us tremendously, I think, in those formative years. Newman Hall is named for Mr. Newman from International Harvester, who -- the company that gave us the property on which the Cumberland Campus sits. 01:03:00Falkenstein Hall is named for Dr. J. C. Falkenstein, who was a former director of the college, as I mentioned, who died on this campus. Our other buildings, for the most part, on the other campuses don't have names yet, but as part of our fundraising project, we're trying to give them some names now, if we can come up with some donors.

KLEE: Was there a Dale, Gertrude Angel?

AYERS: Gertrude Angel Dale, yeah. The library's named for Gertrude. Gertrude was our librarian for a number of years and just a wonderful, fascinating lady. By the way, she died a few years ago, and her husband Arthur passed on, I think, last year. They gave us probably something in the neighborhood of $350,000, I would imagine. A lot of their money went to Cumberland College because Gertrude had worked 01:04:00down there for a number of years, and her sister worked down there as well. But just great folks. And I can't mention Gertrude without mentioning Gayle Lawson. Gayle is now, I think, about the age of Paul Graham. She must be about 96 or 97. She came here as a counselor in Upward Bound, I guess, in 1965 and stayed on with us until she reached retirement age, and for all intents and purposes, has never retired. She calls me on a regular and consistent basis. She has gotten vitally interested in highway development in the past eight or ten years, probably has had more to do with continued funding for US 119 than any other single person. When the legislative delegation sees 01:05:00her coming, they give her an update on 119 immediately. But Gayle is a -- she's still active. She called me yesterday, as a matter of fact, because we hadn't paid our dues to some transportation concern that she was supporting. But Gayle and Gertrude were great friends, and I remember rode together from Harlan.

KLEE: Have you -- you said you haven't named the buildings at Whitesburg or Middlesboro.

AYERS: Well, we actually named our newest building in Whitesburg. It was named in legislation. The Belinda Mason Academic-Technical Building --

KLEE: I saw that.

AYERS: -- was named for the daughter of Paul Mason, the late Paul Mason. She certainly was someone who contacted HIV-AIDS as a result of a 01:06:00transfusion -- I'll say that in a moment -- and really became just a great person in support of helping people understand and to comprehend the nature of that terrible disease and become a very articulate spokesperson, I think, on behalf of the program.

KLEE: And the legislature determined that, then.

AYERS: Yes, they did.

KLEE: As an honor, yeah.

AYERS: I think her father had had a little something to do with it, but she was deserving, whether or not he had intervened on her behalf.

KLEE: Right. One final question, you talked about some of the faculty that stood out and staff that stood out in those early years when you were here as a student. In the later UK years, in the '70s and maybe the '80s, was there anyone else that -- you know, that when people talk about Southeast Community College in the community or elsewhere, they 01:07:00thought of this person?

AYERS: Well, there probably have been several, John, and I'm a little hesitant to do this --

KLEE: I understand.

AYERS: -- because you'll probably leave some out, but we've had some terrific instructors through the years and still have some. By the way, Professor Ann Carr came here with me when I came back full-time and has been teaching English since that time. Just a very dedicated and quality person who cares about students and is a tough A, as the students say. But they learn an awfully lot under her. I can remember [sounds like T. M. Mickey Bowen], by the way, who left the college a few years ago. But in anatomy and physiology, [sounds like Mickey] probably was a mentor to almost every nursing student who went through our program. John Presley, John was a history instructor and, you know, died I guess about four years ago and left the college $275,000. 01:08:00Left us that money and told me that he wanted it to be used for faculty development, so that's what we use it for. John was, you know, just one of my closest friends. But John was a personality. And I would have breakfast with John almost every morning. And I can recall on one occasion when we were going through evaluation, I said, "Now, John, you know you need to evaluate me." I said, "I know you'll do a good one for me." And he said, "Bruce, I'm going to be honest with you." He said, "I am going to give you a good one." He said, "You're not that good." He said, "I want you to know that." But he said, "I'm afraid of what your replacement might be like." But John -- we were kind of John's family. You know, he was a single man and did an awfully, awfully good job in history for us. And there are so many, John. Again, I'm hesitant to mention just a few.


KLEE: I appreciate it. Right.

AYERS: Red Sellars has been here for many years, and Red, of course, is the Dean of Student Affairs, who started here as a student and went on to Morehead and got a master's degree and came back and was a counselor and principal at Lynch High School before he came here, and just does a terrific job. These are all pre-KCTCS people, who -- you know, most of whom are still with us. And we really have inherited some people from some of the Kentucky Tech institutions that are just absolutely outstanding. Susan Croushorn on the Middlesboro Campus, the director of the Middlesboro and Pineville campus, just a very insightful person who does a tremendously good job. Vic Adams, who -- former UK football player, All-Conference guard for UK, heads up our CED unit down there, and by the way, works for Paul Pratt. Paul is our CED head here, and 01:10:00Paul is a former Benham Coal-International Harvester superintendent.

KLEE: Is that right?

AYERS: Yeah. And just does a tremendously good job. There are so many, so many. I could just go down the list of faculty and staff and say something good --

KLEE: I promised you one last question, but I'm going to ask you one more. As you -- we -- as those big companies began to slow down and shut down, I get the impression that Southeast has -- became kind of an anchor for the community. Can you comment on that?

AYERS: Well, I think we are, and I've learned through the rural community college initiative, John, that we're not unusual in that regard. Rural community colleges tend to be anchors, and it's because you just don't have the same kind of infrastructure in place that you 01:11:00have in larger communities. And you know, we have to take a leadership role in a lot of instances that might be assumed by other folks in other areas. But as I mentioned to you, I think in our evolution we've learned that we have to do this through strategic alliances and partners. We can't do all the work ourselves. We can help to identify some of the needs, but we've got to get a lot of other people involved. And I think that's what a good community college does, it serves at a catalyst, there's no question about that. And you have to have the mindset that you don't care who gets the credit, as long as the problems get solved, and I hope that's where we are in our evolution.

KLEE: Well, I appreciate it.

AYERS: Yes, sir.