For Charles E. Ayers Jr., VMI is very much a family affair. He and his wife, Sally, sent all three of their sons to the Institute (his youngest, Alexander ’02, transferred to Hampden-Sydney College after his 4th Class year), and all three played varsity lacrosse at the Institute.
Some might think this was a case of three boys following their father’s path to VMI. In fact, Ayers is not an alumnus, as he attended Virginia Tech. However, as a resident of Richmond, Virginia, where the VMI presence is, to say the least, strong, he and his family were very well-acquainted with the school.
“VMI is a wonderful school,” said Ayers. “I have always respected it. I especially value its effectiveness in developing its cadets as leaders through what it is known as the ‘three-legged stool:’ Academics, athletics and the military system.”
That respect deepened over the years because of the many alumni with whom he was acquainted. Yet, the alumnus who had the biggest influence on his relationship with VMI was his long-time friend, the late John H. Woodfin Sr. ’61. “John lived for VMI. He believed it was a tremendous place,” recalled Ayers. “And when he found out my sons were interested in VMI, well, he and his son, John H. Woodfin Jr. ’91, went to work doing all they could to persuade them that VMI was the right choice.”
All three sons were stand-out multi-sport athletes in high school and were heavily recruited to play lacrosse. However, they all chose VMI. Certainly, the Woodfins exerted a certain influence, but Ayers also credits Doug Bartlett, long-time VMI lacrosse coach. “Doug is a great coach, and he has an amazing enthusiasm for the Institute. Considering some of the schools that were recruiting my sons, it says a lot about him that all of them chose VMI.”
As he watched his sons take the field for VMI (his oldest son, Charles ’97, was a starter and co-captain, and his middle son, Mason ’99, still holds many VMI scoring records), he took an interest in improving the team. “When considering what school to attend, young people and their parents examine everything, and that includes how the team looks.” So, when the team needed new warm-up jackets and trousers, Ayers provided the money for them. Thinking that a military school’s team should have a uniform appearance, Ayers made another purchase. “I bought the team, everyone, the same shoes.”
Besides providing equipment for the team, Ayers was also a donor to the Keydet Club Scholarship Fund. In 2008, however, he established a lacrosse scholarship at VMI, and since then, most of his philanthropy has focused on the Ayers Brothers Lacrosse Scholarship.
Asked why he decided on the scholarship, Ayers replied, “Simple: To make VMI’s lacrosse program successful.” He recognizes the challenges VMI faces in recruiting. “It’s tough recruiting for VMI. When a young man is comparing it with a civilian school, he might not appreciate what a VMI education means and what it can do for him. It often boils down to the barracks versus the fraternity house. Even if he is attracted to VMI, a better scholarship offer from another school might tip the balance.”
When competing with a service academy, Ayers recognizes that the choice is between military colleges. “But the fact remains that going to Annapolis or West Point essentially means a full ride, and that can be the deciding factor.”
“VMI lacrosse is in a strong position,” he continued. “Coach Jon Birsner is a solid coach, who, as a Naval Academy graduate, understands the challenges associated with athletics at a military college. We have many committed and skilled cadet-athletes, and we have excellent facilities. In other words, the pieces are there.”
Enhanced scholarship support is the key element to ensuring success, according to Ayers. “For VMI to be able to compete with what John Woodfin would call ‘the big boys,’ to get the program to a level where it can play against anyone and have a strong chance of winning, we’ve got to have more scholarship money.”
To achieve this goal, Ayers is willing to do his part. He recently made a major commitment to his family’s scholarship. “When I set up the scholarship, my objective was to build it to a point where it can provide a full in-state scholarship for a deserving young man. I’ll get it there.”
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