Former GOP legislator delighted by new majority

June 18, 1995|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,Special to The Sun

William Hanes Ayres doesn't mean to be a name-dropper, but the names of presidents, world leaders and congressmen pour from the Columbia resident's conversations like water from a faucet.

In his 20 years as a Republican congressman from Ohio, from 1951 to 1971, he talked with Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, along with some foreign leaders.

The 79-year-old former lawmaker, who moved to Columbia 2 1/2 years ago so that his wife, Mary Helen, could be close to the medical services she needs, spent most of his congressional tenure in the minority.

That's why he gets a kick out of watching Republicans wield their new-found power in Congress.

For the most part, "my career was under Democratic leadership," says Mr. Ayres, who lives in the Vantage House Retirement Community. "I had to be humble enough to gather the ideas that I had and get some Democratic support in order to get anything done. It's so nice for Newt Gingrich to be able to call the shots."

Mr. Ayres joined Congress in 1951 when he won election as a small businessman from Akron, Ohio, who had battled that state's public utilities regulators.

"Everybody figured it would be an uphill battle and must have thought, 'Here's a guy who's the sacrificial lamb,' " Mr. Ayres recalls of his first campaign. He won by 1,900 votes.

In 1953, the congressman ran the housing subcommittee of the Veterans Affairs Committee. He led the panel until the next election -- one year later -- when the Democrats became the majority.

Mr. Ayres claims to be the only Republican still alive who chaired a congressional committee before the current Republican majority.

A Virginia native, he moved to West Virginia and then to Lorain County, Ohio, with his parents. He recalls running the 100-yard dash during a high school track meet against Olympic track star Jesse Owens, who attended a high school in Cleveland.

"All I saw were his heels," laughs Mr. Ayres, who came in second place, one second behind the future Olympian and "30 feet back."

He later earned an athletic scholarship to Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

A former Army private who served for a short period near the end of World War II, Mr. Ayres employed several veterans in his business of converting coal furnaces to gas. He retained a sympathy for veterans' needs when he took his committee post.

His efforts included helping to make sure that the government would be willing to guarantee loans to veterans at a high enough interest rate that lenders would be willing to make them available.

"It was important that the returning veterans be able to get

established in their own homes, regardless of race, creed or color," he says.

"I also believed that they must be given the opportunity to get an education."

He cites among his other accomplishments co-writing the law that created Meals-on-Wheels, a nonprofit organization that provides meals to the homebound.

During his last six years in office, Mr. Ayres was the senior Republican on the Education and Labor Committee.

Mr. Ayres retains warm memories of his time in Congress -- including such unofficial activities as the annual "Democrats-against-the-Republicans" baseball games.

He also was a charter member of the Chowder and Marching Society, which meets weekly and was organized in 1949 by 14 members of Congress, including Mr. Nixon and Mr. Ford.

Today, Mr. Ayres is a member of the Association of Former Members of Congress, a nonprofit organization made up of 600 members who meet weekly to discuss government.

Although he no longer participates in legislation, he keeps an eye on the political scene.

"We pass along our experience, lecturing at high school and college campuses, and we also go to different countries and exchange ideas," Mr. Ayres says. "The understanding of different peoples is directed toward a more peaceful world."

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