Bruce Ayers likes to lightheartedly say he “Grew up and grew old at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College.”
As president of the college since 1987 and prior to that a student and faculty member, Ayers’ connection with Southeast spans almost a half century. Under his watch, SKCTC has grown from several hundred students located on one campus to now serving well over 5,000 at five campuses spread across Harlan, Bell and Letcher counties.
Recently, the college was singled out by the respected Aspen Institute as one of the top 10 community colleges in the country.
As the 48th installment of the Kingdom Come Swappin’ Meetin’ is set to take the stage Friday and Saturday Oct. 5-6, Ayers will be flattered as the honoree for the event, which over the years has carried his distinctive imprint. The event, since 1964, has blossomed, grown and flourished, becoming one of the top folk and arts festivals of its kind in the state.
Ayers was a Southeast student, fresh from a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, when the first Swappin’ Meetin’ was held along the picturesque banks of Cloverlick Creek in Cumberland. He recently recalled how the small festival began with a focus on musicians and arts and crafts’ demonstrations.
Over the years, he has held a variety of jobs, along with other faculty and staff members pulling together to ensure the success of the festival. Today, the event attracts several thousand patrons for a lively two-days of fun and fellowship.
“I am so privileged to be selected as the Swappin’ Meetin’ honoree,” he said. “I was a student when it all began; it was a small festival and much has changed over the years. Then, we had the one building (Newman Hall) on the campus and it was completely surrounded by a sea of tents and booths.”
He said the growth of the event is hard to comprehend. “Through the years it has enjoyed tremendous growth, and one of the most important changes has been the involvement of the public schools,” he said. “Literally, hundreds of school children from across the region come to the campus, especially during the opening day of the event, and enjoy the experience while learning about Appalachian traditions and being exposed to the arts and crafts and the traditional music; all the great spectacles of the event which make the Kingdom Come Swappin’ Meetin’ the jewel it has become.”
Ayers stressed that each Swappin’ Meetin’ is a “team effort” by the many students, faculty and staff, as well as folks from the community who work year round the make it a success.
A native of Insull, Ayers graduated from Bell County High School before joining the Marines. His tour of duty included a stop at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In 1964, he enrolled as a freshman at then the Southeast Center of the University of Kentucky located at Cumberland. Early on, he exhibited leadership skills and an intense sense of community and campus involvement heading several student groups as well as playing a key role in establishing the college’s award-winning newspaper, The Southeasterner.
After achieving an Associate’s Degree from Southeast, he transferred to UK where he received a Bachelor’s in English. Upon earning a Master’s of Arts from UK, he returned to Southeast in the fall of 1969.
During his tenure at the college, he has held posts as Upward Bound director and various staff and faculty positions. Twenty-five years ago he became the institution’s eighth president.
He and his wife, Barbara, are the parents of two sons, Sean and Andy. They have three grandchildren.
Ayers, along with other award recipients, will be honored in a ceremony set for Saturday at 11 a.m. on the main stage to be located on the veranda of Falkenstine Hall.