Ruth and George Ayers at their home in Gorham. Photo courtesy of the Ayers family

George Ayers was a practical man. He took pleasure in walking nearly everywhere he went, spending quiet time in nature with his family and finding a good deal.

But his greatest passion was making the seemingly mystical and inexplicable easy to understand. He devoted his life to teaching astronomy to his many students at the University of Maine, to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren through a backyard telescope, and to strangers who read his “What’s Up” column in the pages of the Portland Press Herald.

Ayers died at home in Gorham on May 10. He was 96.

In an interview at the family home on Sunday, Ayers’ wife and children said that although he was a lifelong teacher, he wasn’t one to lecture. He preferred to draw his students in with practical lessons. His children remember him setting up marbles, tennis balls and basketballs in the backyard to demonstrate the different sizes of the planets. He often took students up to the roof of Bailey Hall at the USM campus in Gorham, where he set up telescopes so they could see faraway galaxies for themselves.

Born on Dec. 22, 1927, in Camden, Ayers was the middle brother of five and grew up working at his family’s fish market.

In a letter to his grandchildren, Ayers wrote about the green bicycle he rode as a teenager. When the weather turned warm each spring, he would ride down Camden’s main street honking the black horn tied to his handlebars to “exuberantly announce the pleasures of spring and owning a bicycle.”


He had a gift for noticing beauty wherever he went, his family said, and he never missed a chance to revel in it.

George Ayers with his grandchildren on his 90th birthday. Photo courtesy of the Ayers family

After serving in the Army for two years during post-World War II cleanup in Europe, he was waiting to board a ship home from Italy when a band in the harbor started playing a popular song of the era, “Deep Purple.” He stood and listened for so long he nearly missed the boat, he told his wife, Ruth Ayers.

On the weekslong journey home, he felt claustrophobic in the ship’s sleeping quarters, she said, so at night he would climb up to the deck and fall asleep watching the stars, the only pricks of light in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.


Ayers met his wife in a biology lab at the University of Maine at Orono. They were lab partners in the fall semester, but she said it wasn’t until just after Christmas that he worked up the courage to ask her out. Once they got together, they were inseparable.

They later took German together and their children – Pam, Mark and John – remember them occasionally speaking it at the dinner table when they wanted to talk privately.


They were known to friends as “R and G” and were married on June 22, 1952, at the School Street Methodist Church in Gorham. The license plate on their blue Toyota reads “R&G22.”

They exuded a quiet comfort and enjoyed many shared hobbies, their children said. They loved going to their family cabin in Newfield, where they canoed, skipped rocks and spent time in nature.

“Being together was quiet and easy,” said Ruth Ayers.

George and Ruth Ayers in an undated photo. George, a longtime astronomy professor in Maine, died May 10 at the age of 96. Photo courtesy of the Ayers family.

After graduating from UMaine, the couple moved into a small shed in the backyard of George Ayers’ parents home, and he began a career as a teacher. He taught high school science and served as principal at Dennysville, Albion and Unity high schools before moving to Ohio to earn a master’s degree from Ohio State University.

Though he was there to study physics, he signed up for an astronomy class on a lark and was instantly intrigued, his wife said. He earned his masters degree in physics but when he returned to Maine he taught astronomy for decades and eventually established an astronomy program at the University of Southern Maine.

In his spare time, he wrote a monthly astronomy column published in newspapers across the state. He prepared the Portland Press Herald’s sky charts until 2021, when he chose to retire at 93.


Growing up, his children remember constantly running into their father’s students and hearing them say that he was their favorite teacher.

As a father, they said, he was kind and soft-spoken. When they were in high school and college, he would wait up with the light on, no matter how late, until they were home in bed.

“He was always worried about us being safe,” said Mark Ayers, the couples’ eldest son.

Usually one to stick to regular bedtimes, Ayers would occasionally ignore them and wake up the family to go outside and look through the telescope. Whether in search of a comet or Venus or a meteor shower, they all spent countless hours in the backyard, heads tilted toward the sky.


Ayers was health conscious and seldom drank alcohol. His granddaughter Kelly Caiazzo remembers him feeding his egg yolks to the cat, preferring the whites for their lower cholesterol content.


Though he never smoked cigarettes, he collected nearly a hundred packs in an old tweed suitcase stored in the attic. He got each carton for free with a coupon, his family said. He had no trouble resisting a cigarette, but he couldn’t resist a good deal.

Ayers had a dry sense of humor and a quick wit. When he was hospitalized with pneumonia years ago, he joked that maybe he shouldn’t buy green bananas because he might not be around to see them ripen.

George Ayers Photo courtesy of the Ayers family

When he was discharged, his daughter bought him a bushel of green bananas. He posed for a photo with them, grinning.

Even as Ayers became a more accomplished astronomer and gained a deeper and deeper understanding of the cosmos, his family said his appreciation for the beauty of the world never waned.

When he was diagnosed with gastric cancer early this spring, he told his kids he wanted to live to see May, his favorite month.

He loved the way the world turned green, the way the flowers burst up from the ground. Though he couldn’t spend much time outside in his final days, his family brought bouquets to his bedside.

On the night he died, the aurora borealis lit up the skies over Maine. And like so many times before, his family went outside and looked to the sky. They understood, thanks to Ayers, that the green waves dancing above them were an emission of energy from the sun interacting with earth’s gaseous atmosphere.

But they reveled in them just the same. They still were magic.

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