Neil Rice Ayer of Wenham, Massachusetts died peacefully in his home, Great Elm Farm, Saturday, 22 December, after a four-year battle with cancer. He was born on 12 February 1926 at Ledyard Farm in Wenham, to Frederick Ayer and Hilda Rice Ayer. Neil received his early education at Shore Country Day School in Beverly and, later, at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham.
Neil was appointed to the United States Military Academy from Massachusetts, entered Beast Barracks on 1 July 1944, graduated with his class on 8 June 1948 and was commissioned a second lieutenant, United States Infantry. His branch preference was the Cavalry, but at this time it was clear that the Army soon would abandon horses, much to Neil’s regret. Neil was posted to his first station at Fort Riley, where he played polo and rode in horse shows just before the last contingent of horses was phased out of the Army. He was next assigned to Fort Benning in preparation for troop duty in West Germany.
Neil and Helen Skidmore Harrison of Washington, DC were married in Washington on 25 June 1949. They sailed for West Germany as newlyweds, only to find that Neil’s unit, the 26th Infantry, “The Blue Spaders,” was undergoing intensive training at Grafenwohr in preparation for “Operation Harvest.” The newlyweds were separated for the next several months, with Helen staying in Bamberg and Neil with his troops in the field. Neil served three years with the 26th Regiment, first as a machinegun platoon leader and finally as the regimental security platoon leader. His tour of duty in Germany ended in 1952, and he and Helen returned to the United States, where he was assigned as an ROTC instructor at Johns Hopkins University. Neil, now Captain Ayer, taught there until resigning his commission.
Neil entered Harvard Business School and was awarded his MBA in 1954. He then went to work with his father in the family investment firm, Ayer Tenens Corporation, Inc. in Boston, now Essex Street Associates in Beverly, where he served until his death. Active in local business and public service, Neil was elected to the board of directors of the
Beverly Hospital in 1955 and succeeded his father as president of the board in 1961. His skills as an organizer and fundraiser made possible the construction of many new facilities at the hospital, including intensive care, kidney dialysis and emergency facilities.
Neil’s lifelong passion was horses. At age six he began competitive riding, and at seven he began hunting. He was appointed Honorary Whipper In for the Myopia Hunt Club, Hamilton at age 16, and later went on to become Master of Foxhounds there from 1968-84. He served as secretary-treasurer of the Master of Foxhounds Association in Boston from 1969-86. Neil also found time in the late 1950’s to lead the revival of polo at the Myopia Hunt Club and served as captain of polo from 1960-67. He continued to play polo until 1971 when he broke his neck in a game. He recovered and continued to ride and hunt until Thanksgiving 1990, five weeks before his death.
Neil’s most important contribution to equestrian sports was his total commitment to three-day eventing. Denny Emerson, president of the United States Combined Training Association, wrote, “Neil basically rescued the USCTA in 1971 and was president for eleven years. He ran the first major international three-day event in modern or ‘post-military’ times in America at Ledyard in 1973 on a course Neil designed. He followed this with two other international events in 1975 and 1977, and over the years ran Ledyard ‘on command’ to help either the U.S. Equestrian Team or USCTA. Neil was the foremost crosscountry course designer in the world and was the architect of the courses at the Rancho Santa Fe venue of the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984 and the World Championships in Gawler, Australia in 1986. Countless other events across America bear the stamp of his design or his influence. How appropriate that this past Ledyard was the most triumphant success ever and that Neil was still well enough to personally direct the event and to feel the warmth, affection and admiration of the hundreds of riders and friends who participated.” In 1988 Neil was named Combined Training Horseman of the Year.
In 1987 Neil was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, but he continued all his activities during the months following surgery, adding a world tour which included Africa for a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, bicycle touring in Europe, hiking in New Zealand, sightseeing in Anarctica and dogsledding in Alaska.
Neil was a man of vision and action. He looked beyond what other people thought was possible and brought most of his projects to fruition despite the doubts and fears which might otherwise have deterred the most worthy efforts of others. He had tremendous faith in people and made them understand the importance and goodness of their actions. He valued a job well done and measured people by their virtues, rather than by their relative status. He did everything with an air of festivity, a sense of theatre and the desire for all to have a good time.
Neil is survived by his widow, Helen Harrison Ayer, two sisters, and four children. He gave of himself unstintingly to his family, community and to the sport he loved. He lived according to the ideals of his Alma Mater, “Duty, Honor, Country.” Be Thou at Peace!
His family, friends and classmates of ‘48
- Mrs. Neil H. Ayer