UGA administrators, members of the Athens community and donor Bob Ayers were at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia Oct. 4 for the dedication of Theater in the Woods, the first component of a $5 million children’s garden planned for the property.
A retired UGA religion and philosophy professor, Ayers made the $161,000 gift to build the outdoor amphitheater in memory of his wife, Mary Frances Cooley Ayers.
In his remarks during the dedication ceremony, Ayers said he and his wife walked at least three times a week at the botanical garden, where she found inspiration for her garden at home. He called the State Botanical Garden, a unit of public service and outreach, one of the most beautiful spots in the world.
Among the guests at the dedication were members of the garden’s boards of advisors, Friends of the Garden and SBG staff. The children’s choir from Oconee Street United Methodist Church sang in celebration of the event.
Garden Director Wilf Nicholls welcomed the group and provided a brief history of the gift.
UGA Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Kelly Kerner thanked Ayers on behalf of the university. Vice President for Public Service and Outreach Jennifer Frum also attended the dedication.
Now 97, Ayers came to UGA with Mary Frances and two children, Sandra and Jeremy, in 1949 to serve as chaplain and assistant professor of religion in what was then the department of religion and philosophy. He retired as director of the department in 1984, and requested that UGA form a separate department for religion so that it could expand and add more faculty.
When told money was the reason the department could not expand, Ayers agreed to return to UGA and teach for five more years, donating his salary to pay for a religion department. He retired for a second time in 1990, having realized his dream.
In 2013, Ayers and his son Jeremy were exploring the garden to find a fitting memorial for Mary Frances, who died in 2010. They first thought of a memorial tree, but after learning about the planned children’s garden from Nicholls and then-Director of Development Andrea Parris decided to fund something much larger, a theater in the woods.
The Alice H. Richards Children’s Garden was initiated by a generous gift from the Richards family in memory of Alice, who was a longtime Friend of the Garden and charter member of the garden’s board of advisors. In addition to the amphitheater, when completed it will include a wheelchair accessible canopy walk in the trees, a tree house, creature habitats, hands-on garden plots, an underground laboratory, edible landscapes, and a bog garden and pond.
So far, UGA has raised $3.5 million of the $5 million cost of the project.