Albert Aymer leaves Salisbury better than he found it

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 14, 2017

By Elizabeth Cook

SALISBURY — Trevor Eppehimer remembers a staff meeting at Hood Theological Seminary the day after he and his wife brought their newborn son home from the hospital.

With dark circles under his eyes, the exhausted Eppehimer said he’d never been so tired in his life.

Dr. Albert Aymer, then president of the seminary, sized up Eppehimer’s condition and gave these words of encouragement:

“No man ever died from that. Keep working.”

Friends and former co-workers celebrated Aymer’s wit and vision Saturday at a reception in his honor at Trinity Oaks.

The former seminary head is leaving today after some 22 years in Salisbury to live in Texas near daughter Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget, an associate professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, and her 3-year-old son, Gabriel.

He has two other daughters, too — Valerie Aymer of Ithaca, N.Y., a professor at Cornell University; and Ann-Marie Aymer of Plainfield, N.J., a librarian.

Strokes have slowed Aymer down, and he wants to be close to family.

Aymer is leaving Salisbury better than he found it, particularly Hood Theological Seminary, according to Dyke Messinger.

To take a virtually unknown, 30-student seminary and turn it into one of the fastest-growing and most diverse seminaries in the country with as many as 300 students, as Aymer did, was an incredible accomplishment, Messinger said.

“He’s got this magnetic personality,” Messinger said.

Hood was a tucked away in the back of the Livingstone College campus when Aymer left Drew University to become the seminary’s dean in 1994.

The Rev. Dr. Bob Lewis, who had met Aymer at Drew, recalled looking up from his pulpit one Sunday at First Presbyterian Church and seeing Aymer, who is black, sitting amid the nearly all-white congregation.

Lewis had no idea why Aymer was there, but he soon found out.

“What he did for Hood Seminary is beyond words,” Lewis said. “He’s had a tremendous impact.

“He came with a vision and he stayed true to it. It was kind of a benevolent dictatorship — and Hood needed that kind of person. He was the right man at the right time.”

Under Aymer’s leadership, Hood broke away from Livingstone, established a separate campus and earned accreditation to offer a doctorate in ministry.

Three months after Lewis retired from First Presbyterian, Aymer invited him to lead the doctorate program.

“It was a privilege to do that work,” Lewis said.

Dr. Dick Martin said Aymer got him to join the Hood board when it was still part of Livingstone. Martin was on the board when the seminary moved to what had been a Holiday Inn off Klumac Road. “Seeing it to fruition — that was an education,” Martin said.

Attorney Darrell Hancock, who did legal work for Livingstone and later Hood, expected Aymer to be stodgy. Instead, he was “one of the guys”— and much more. “He is a businessman par excellence,” Hancock said.

Born in Antiqua, Aymer immigrated with his family to the United States from Jamaica in 1977. Aymer brought his clipped accent and proper English with him.

At one point, Hancock told Aymer he wanted to take a class in Greek at the seminary. Instead, Aymer steered him toward Hebrew and called it “the language of God.”

Studying Hebrew under Aymer was an awesome experience, Hancock said, but it wasn’t all smooth going. He recalled the day Aymer diagnosed his students’ collective, Southern problem.

“The reason we’re not making progress,” Hancock quotes Aymer, “is you people are not speaking English.”

Eppehimer was living in New York years ago when he learned of an opening in his field, systematic theology, at Hood. He came to Salisbury for an interview.

As Aymer talked about Hood and Salisbury, Eppehimer thought he’d never seen a person who loved a place so much. If one person could be so enthused, he thought, “then there must be something to these places.”

And there was. But Aymer was a driving force — a man with a kind heart and a tough exterior.

“He demanded excellence. … at the same time, he offered words of encouragement and support, as any good boss or mentor or parent would do,” Eppehimer said.

Regina Dancy transferred to Hood as a student in 1999 after the pastor she was studying under at another institution told her she was at the wrong place. He had studied under Aymer and recommended she do so, too.

That’s how Hood’s reputation grew, she said, by word of mouth. People talked of the vision and mission Aymer had for Hood and wanted to be part of it. He was able to form new collaborative partnerships in the community that strengthened Hood and helped it grow.

Dancy became the school’s chief financial officer and director of human resources.

The vision that God showed to Aymer came to fruition, she said.

“You felt his commitment and you felt his passion,” Dancy said — from the walls of the school to the streets of Salisbury.

Aymer also made friends in the community. Reid and Mary Sue Leonard sat in a pew right in front of Aymer at First United Methodist Church’s 8:30 a.m. service for many years. After Aymer switched to the 11 a.m. service, he made a point of hailing Reid at Rotary Club each Tuesday with the same observation. “Reid, I didn’t see you in church on Sunday.”

Aymer never met a stranger, Mary Sue said. “He’s very outgoing. He’s a great person. We’re going to miss him.”

The Rev. Fred Jordan Jr., an adjunct faculty member,  said he planned the reception because he knew many people held Aymer in high regard.

In addition to transforming Hood into a major, accredited seminary, Jordan said, Aymer was a spokesman for common sense in race relations. “I think he has been a leader in racial understanding.”

Daughter Margaret said she is delighted her father wants to make the transition to Texas, but he will leave behind a community that means a great deal to him.

“He’s just very, very dearly loved,” she said, looking around the room. “It’s very clear he’s made some lifelong friends.”