Wineka column: Today’s Hood Theological Seminary tells story of a man, a mission, a miracle

  • Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2013 12:34 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, May 19, 2013 12:35 a.m.
A new portrait hangs in the Administration Office at Hood Theological Seminary, where Dr. Albert Aymer first became dean in 1994.
A new portrait hangs in the Administration Office at Hood Theological Seminary, where Dr. Albert Aymer first became dean in 1994.

SALISBURY — The story goes that Dr. Albert Aymer left the group he was with and took a personal sight-seeing tour of London one afternoon.

Hood Theological Seminary in comparison:

Hood Theological Seminary in comparison

Hood Theological Seminary is one of eight institutions in North Carolina accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.

Only Hood and the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the town of Wake Forest are independent and not affiliated with a university or college. Here is a listing of the eight N.C. institutions, where they are located, what their primary denominational affiliation is, the total number of students and full-time faculty members as reported by the ATS in 2012, except for Hood, whose enrollment is a three-year average:

• Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, Southern Baptist Convention, 1,712 students, 56 faculty members.

• Duke University Divinity School, Durham, United Methodist Church, 628 students, 37 faculty members.

• Hood Theological Seminary, Salisbury, African Methodist Episcopal Church, 276 students, 11 faculty members.

• M. Christopher White School of Divinity of Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, 217 students, 12 faculty members.

• Campbell University Divinity School, Buies Creek, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, 185 students, 9 faculty members.

• Shaw University Divinity School, Raleigh, General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, 133 students, nine faculty members.

• Wake Forest University Divinity School, Winston-Salem, inter/multi-denominational, 91 students, 12 faculty members.

• Carolina Graduate School of Divinity, Greensboro (affiliated with Randolph County Community College), inter/multi-denominational, 50 students, two faculty members.

Aymer stopped by the grave of Prince Albert and said out loud, “You old bloke, I was named for you.”

Hood Theological Seminary by the numbers

Hood by the numbers

According to Hood Theological Seminary’s development office, the institution’s average total enrollment over the past three years is 276 students, with it peaking in 2010-11 at more than 300.

Here’s a further breakdown of student enrollment, again looking at the past three-year averages:

• African American: 62-68 percent.

• Caucasian: 32-38 percent.

• Other (Native American, Asian, etc.): 1-4 percent.

• Gender: male, 52 percent; female, 48 percent.

• Age: 40 to 60 years old, 62 percent; 22 to 40 years old, 38 percent.

• Student denominations: AME Zion and United Methodist, 36 to 40 percent.

• Other denominations include AME, Presbyterian, Lutheran (ELCA), United Church of Christ, Baptist, Episcopal, Holiness, Nondenominational, North American Lutheran Church, Missionary Baptist, Church of God and Catholic.

• Professor’s denominations: AME Zion, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Southern Baptist, Episcopal.

Dr. Don Haynes, retired pastor of First United Methodist Church in Salisbury, takes note of another monument Aymer probably saw that day — the small tombstone epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren, architect for St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“If you seek his memorial,” the inscription ends, “look about you.”

The same could be said of Aymer, according to Haynes. Look about you.

Over almost two decades in Salisbury, Aymer built the once struggling Hood Theological Seminary into an enviable institution.

“Wow, what a legacy,” Haynes says.

Dr. Robert Lewis, retired senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, calls it “one of the greatest success stories Salisbury has ever known.” And he suggests that it might be the most diverse seminary in the country.

Initially as dean, then as Hood’s first president, Aymer oversaw its becoming a free-standing seminary, independent from Livingstone College. He led Hood to the establishment of a doctoral degree program and its accreditation by the Association of Theological Schools in 1998 and its approval by the University Senate of the United Methodist Church in 1999.

It’s almost forgotten these days, but Aymer served as both head of Hood and interim president of Livingstone College for 11 months 18 days — he counted the time and went five months without a salary. But the mission for him was always the seminary.

Aymer made friends throughout the community, twisted arms and raised funds to allow Hood Theological Seminary to convert the former Days Inn motel along Interstate 85 — Salisbury’s original Holiday Inn — into a handsome seminary campus.

Enrollment at Hood increased from less than 30 students when Aymer arrived in 1994 to close to 300 today. He demanded fiscal solvency for Hood. Meanwhile, the seminary earns praise for its gender, racial and denominational diversity; the caliber of its full-time and adjunct faculty; the library built by the Rev. Cynthia Keever; and a seminary curriculum Aymer deemed should be patterned after the divinity schools at Duke, Yale and Drew universities.

Dr. Vergel L. Lattimore, who was confirmed recently as the Hood president to succeed Aymer, describes the seminary’s transformation as just “short of miraculous.”

As with most other faculty, administration and staff members at Hood, Lattimore came to Salisbury thanks to Aymer’s recruiting skills.

Similarly wooed, Academic Dean Trevor Eppehimer thinks he has settled into a special place, where one of the finest seminary faculties has been assembled.

Dr. James Feree, a retired Methodist minister, says it’s great to see new ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church coming from Hood.

“Now we’re sure our young men and women will be equipped for ministry,” he says.

Aymer, 75, and newly named as president emeritus, has spent the past two weeks deflecting praise at commencement and many different tributes.

Students and alumni commissioned a portrait of him, painted by Salisbury artist Mark Stephenson. It now hangs in the Hood administration building’s lobby. At a tribute dinner, he received the state’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Long Life Pine. A few days ago, he accepted an Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Award from the Salisbury-Rowan Human Relations Council.

In return, he has praised God and warmly thanked all the faculty, staff, alumni, students, board members, bishops and community supporters he could name.

He did it in good humor, as always.

“How does one say thanks when so much has been said — and so much has been exaggeration,” he says. “It’s a shame the leader of an institution receives the recognition. It took all of us working together.”

Aymer persuaded those around him to take a seminary — though it had been established in 1904 — from being one of Salisbury’s best-kept secrets to one of its higher-profile institutions.

• • •

Everybody seems to remember when they first met Aymer.

Margaret Kluttz was mayor of Salisbury when Aymer arrived in 1994 from New Jersey, where he was a senior pastor at Morristown United Methodist Church and had been an associate dean at the Drew University Theological School.

“I remember being so impressed and drawn to him,” Kluttz recalls. “When you first meet him, you know you’re in the presence of someone outstanding.”

Today, Kluttz is Hood’s development officer.

Bishop Leonard Bolick, head of the N.C. Lutheran Synod, which has its headquarters office in Salisbury, remembers first meeting Aymer at a local restaurant.

“You look like you’re a pastor,” Aymer said to Bolick. “We need to get together and talk.”

The men didn’t realize it then, but they would work to bring together the Lutheran Synod and the AME Zion Board of Bishops, establishing a formal covenant between the denominations.

The agreement looks for ways, inspired by God’s spirit, to work together and glorify God, Bolick says.

Aymer and Bolick also became neighbors. The seminary and the Lutheran Synod sit next to each other off Interstate 85.

The Rev. Angela Roberson knows the exact date she first met Aymer — Feb. 11, 2005. She was attending a lecture series, and she recalls Aymer’s warm hospitality toward her. In their conversation, Aymer was soon telling Roberson the new semester would begin on the first Saturday in September, how holy communion would be conducted and that the seminary would be opening that fall on a new campus.

“I think he was pretty much saying, ‘I expect to see you there,’” Roberson says. She was, and she became a student government president during her time at Hood.

• • •

Stephanie Wilson, who just earned her master of divinity degree and is the outgoing SGA president, said Aymer was always approachable and, except for his Tuesdays at Rotary Club, often ate lunch with the students.

He often welcomed students into his office, whose walls are filled with his many theological books and papers.

Friends such as Dr. Grant Harrison, Hood’s first doctor of divinity graduate, note Aymer has worn many hats at the seminary, including administrator, dean, professor, recruiter, fundraiser and confidante.

Lewis, the retired pastor of First Presbyterian Church, considers Aymer a great New Testament scholar and preacher.

Aymer has often been a guest pastor at Salisbury churches, including First Presbyterian Church, one of the city’s largest. He became close friends with Lewis as soon as he arrived in Salisbury and has befriended Lewis’ successor, Dr. Jim Dunkin.

Lewis says he remembers looking out into the congregation one Sunday and seeing Aymer, whom he knew from his doctoral studies at Drew University. Aymer had just arrived in Salisbury.

Over the years, Aymer won the hearts of black, white, young, old, male and female — and you have to realize what it has meant to the community, Lewis says. Aymer made himself — and Hood — visible by sitting on the United Way, Rowan Regional Medical Center Foundation and Housing Advisory boards.

In retirement, Lewis became an adjunct professor over the Doctor of Ministry program at Hood.

Dunkin says nine years ago, during the interview process that brought him to Salisbury, he kept hearing about Aymer. Dunkin has come to know him since then as “a very special servant of God.”

When Aymer was scheduled to preach recently at First Presbyterian, Dunkin told his congregation, “Everybody loves Albert.”

“And everybody does,” Dunkin says.

• • •

As AME Zion Bishops Ruben Speaks and Joseph Johnson were trying to persuade Aymer to come to Hood as its presiding dean, Aymer also was weighing an offer to become an associate dean at the divinity school at Yale University.

Aymer himself describes how comfortable he was as senior pastor of the Morristown church with some 1,200 members. He thought he could easily retire in that position. He was 58 at the time. Why should he choose to head a non-accredited seminary he knew nothing about?

“We never thought he would come,” says Johnson, now Hood’s bishop-in-residence and professor of church administration. The AME Zion Church is the sponsoring denomination of the Hood seminary.

But Aymer has said his three daughters, one in particular, asked whether he was giving enough back to the black community.

Aymer sensed a calling to come to Hood, despite all the rational arguments against it. Aymer says the AME Zion bishops were panicking at the time, fearful of losing Livingstone College’s accreditation because its seminary was not accredited.

In the end, Aymer decided on Hood by following the words of Methodist founder John Wesley, who said, paraphrased, “go not to those who want you, but go to those who need you most.”

“I still don’t know what was wrong with me,” laughs Aymer, who speaks with an accent from his native Caribbean island of Antigua.

Aymer protests when someone mentions his accent.

“I don’t have an accent — you folks have an accent,” he says.

Aymer often speaks out loud to God, and he remembers his words the first day he stood on the steps outside the small Hood seminary building at the edge of the Livingstone College campus.

“God,” he said, “you’re having fun with me.”

• • •

When Aymer first arrived at Hood as its dean in September 1994, there was hardly a staff, less than 30 students and most of the faculty was adjunct. There was no admissions office, just the dean and his administrative assistant. “Hood was something thinking itself to be a school,” Aymer said once.

Checks written in support of Hood were written to Livingstone College, and the seminary was never sure of seeing that money.

When Aymer first tried to send out a bulk mailing to 300 to 400 churches, he learned there were no funds for the postage required.

Aymer systematically started to develop the seminary by building its curriculum and faculty, gaining the important accreditations and keeping it fiscally solvent, while heading toward the day of independence from Livingstone College.

That split, though supported by the bishops, became publicly fractious to one Livingstone College president and some trustees, but through the years Aymer has been able to mend fences with the college.

Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy Jenkins, going on his eighth year as president, says of Aymer: “He has been a friend, and this has been his other home.”

• • •

While Hood may have students representing up to 15 to 16 different denominations at times, Aymer is quick to point out how important the AME Zion Church has been to the seminary.

He says the AME Zion Church has been responsive and supportive.

Johnson says Aymer demonstrated a love for the AME Zion Church, though he made it clear from the beginning he would remain a member of the United Methodist Church.

“Which was hard for the bishops at first,” Johnson says.

But Aymer won them over as he built a school around his desire for racial, gender and denominational diversity and financial stability. “He will squeeze a nickel,” Johnson says.

AME Zion bishops stepped up and purchased the former hotel site where Hood now stands and leased it to the seminary for 99 years, at $1 a year. Meanwhile, Aymer led a $15 million capital campaign, depending on meetings such as “Hood Coffees” in churches, homes and businesses, to raise some of the money toward the renovations needed at the former motel.

All those connections Aymer made in the community paid off handsomely, too.

• • •

Architect Karen Alexander of Salisbury beautifully transformed the former motel into a seminary campus.

Kluttz, Hood’s development officer, often gives tours to visitors, who always seem to leave saying they didn’t realize what all was happening on campus.

Students attend classes as part of one of two tracks. One track takes place Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; the other, Fridays and Saturdays.

There’s also a satellite campus in Greenville, Ala., serving students in that region through interactive classrooms on the Salisbury campus. Those students still are required to spend a certain number of hours in Salisbury to earn their graduate degrees, and they often attend summer classes or intensive sessions held in January.

Two of the motel’s former buildings are still used as dormitories. Kluttz says about 80 students take advantage of the on-campus rooms. Overall, she judges that a little more than a third of the total enrollment are students from the greater Charlotte region.

A voluntary chapel service is held every day classes are in session from 10:10 to 11 a.m. Students also spend plenty of time in the well-stocked library, another of Hood’s often overlooked resources, though it’s open to the public.

Copies of all dissertations and thesis papers also are kept here.

Toward the rear of campus, Summit Developers is building a $2.8 million refectory, which will be the campus’ new dining hall with a full kitchen. Right now, lunches on campus are catered.

“This is going to change the dynamic of the campus greatly,” Kluttz says of the new building, expected to be completed in October. “It will be the hub of community life here.”

So far, $2.65 million toward the building expansion has been raised. In the future, Hood has plans for a new library and chapel.

• • •

Kluttz says three things also have combined to bring Hood closest to its first full endowment, which will cover all the costs of a deserving student each year.

Some years ago, an endowment in Aymer’s honor was started.

Earlier this year, the seminary also learned of a generous estate gift to Hood that was left in the will of a New Jersey couple who had been part of Aymer’s congregation in Morristown.

Kluttz says the couple never understood why Aymer had chosen Hood over Yale back in 1994, but they saw his vision later when they made a personal trip to Salisbury to visit with Aymer.

The couple left 40 percent of their estate to the seminary.

Their gift and the past contributions to the Aymer fund will be combined with $200,000 being raised through a challenge grant made possible by Bill Stanback, who recently received the Bishop James Walker Hood Award.

Stanback and his wife, Nancy, will match every dollar contributed to the endowment up to $100,000.

Kluttz says the school remains, however, tuition-driven, and the annual operating fund drive is always a big challenge.

“When you give $1,000 to Hood,” she says, “it goes a long way.”

• • •

Aymer won’t officially retire from Hood until June 30, 2014, but he will be taking a year’s sabbatical until then.

He has always considered himself a teacher first, so that might be part of his future.

His brother, Samuel Aymer, hopes he will write.

Ned Storey, an Aymer friend and trustee emeritus at Hood, says, “I have a lot of plans for him.”

Aymer’s longtime assistant at Hood, Phyllis Wells, who also is director of auxiliary services, plans to stay on with the new president.

“He has a way of bringing things out in you,” Wells says of Aymer. “ When he talks, you listen. What he says is very meaningful. I have picked up a lot I didn’t know.”

Sara Cook, a Hood trustee, says it fills her heart with joy to know how many people love Aymer and, in turn, love Hood, as she discovered in helping to plan his recent tribute dinner and the students-alumni reception at Livingstone College’s Events Center.

Together, those two events attracted some 1,500 people and, as Cook notes, were inclusive of the whole community.

Therein might lie Aymer’s greatest gift and legacy.

“He doesn’t see color,” Lewis says. “He sees human beings created in the image of God.”

Aymer says God did it all.

If God asks you to do something or go somewhere, as he spoke to him in 1994, Aymer says, you should probably realize God already has gone ahead of you to pave the way.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or

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