Ayers, a quiet force for Catawbas during land settlement, dies at 82

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comDecember 19, 2012 

When the Catawba Indian Nation mobilized in a decades-long fight to reclaim land tribal members said was rightfully theirs, Bishop Claude Ayers was there “in the middle of it all.”

“It was a mammoth accomplishment,” former U.S. Rep. John Spratt said about the 1993 land settlement that restored land in York and Lancaster counties to the Indian tribe, as well as earned the Catawbas federal recognition. “In all the variations in that settlement ... he was always a constant.”

Ayers died in his Rock Hill home on Monday after a long stint on dialysis and chemotherapy. He was 82.

“He was always one with good judgment,” said Spratt, a York Democrat and lead government negotiator in the settlement. “He was a great guy ... sincere ... dedicated ... level-headed.”

Ayers in 1977 joined a committee that, along with the tribe’s executive committee, filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the tribe never received 140,000 acres it was owed. When the settlement was reached, the Catawba Indian Nation became the only federally recognized Indian tribe in the state.

Spratt said Ayers is “certainly” named “in that pantheon” of the people instrumental in negotiating the $50 million settlement.

The process saw a lot of “ups and downs,” Spratt said. Nevertheless, Ayers persevered.

“He attended every meeting” even when he was working in other parts of the state. “You could count on his good judgment.”

Through the years of battle in court and with the community, Ayers was “laid back and easygoing,” said former tribal Chief Gilbert Blue. “He didn’t start hollering and shouting. He would sit and calmly listen and offer advice. He was a quiet, unassuming man.”

“We not only lost Claude ... the family hasn’t only lost a member of the family, we lost a leader and a man that was very astute in all he did,” Blue said. “And, he did it with honesty and integrity. He was forthright with everybody.”

“Claude provided stable leadership,” said Jay Bender, a Columbia lawyer who represented the tribe from 1975 to 2006.

“My first thought” after receiving a call from The Herald “was how spiritual he was and how accepting he was of everybody and their views,” Bender said. “He had a quiet force about him.”

“I respected him (Ayers) for his convictions and what he thought was best for the tribe,” said Roderick Beck, the tribe’s secretary and treasurer. “I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. He was a good man.”

“He was devoted to his faith,” Beck said Wednesday. That’s the way his wife, Rebecca, remembers him.

In 2001, Rebecca and Ayers met at Harvest Ministries Church of God of Prophecy, a South Anderson Road church where Ayers was a member. Both had been recently widowed.

“The Lord brought us together,” Rebecca Ayers said. “(Ayers) loved reading his Bible. He loved his family.”

After his mother died, Ayers joined the Navy. He served during the Korean War and did something his daughter, Sandy Mundy, said he regretted.

“He had tattoos on his arms,” she said.

Still in the Navy, Ayers received a call from God to preach, Mundy said. The Navy offered him a job as a chaplain, but he turned it down.

“He said the Lord told him to come back to the Rock Hill church.”

In the following years, Mundy said she never saw her father wear short sleeves because “he never wanted anyone to see those tattoos,” even while pastor at a church in Chester that had once been “a little beer joint.”

From there, he was pastor at churches in York, Pelzer, Dacusville and Honea Path. When he retired, he returned to Rock Hill but later moved off the reservation in 2004.

Mundy remembers her father trying to bring his ministry into the Catawba Indian Nation.

“He always felt like he could be a blessing to them, and he was,” she said.

Funeral services for Ayers are 11 a.m. today at Harvest Ministries. Burial will take place at the Catawba Indian Nation Cemetery.

Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082

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