Ernest Campbell “Boots” Mead Jr. – a beloved music professor at the University of Virginia who came to see his mentoring role with students as his life’s theme – died Feb. 13 in Charlottesville. He was 95 when he died, but taught his last liberal arts seminar in the fall, though he had formally retired in 1996.
Professor emeritus, Mead’s involvement with U.Va. spanned nearly eight decades, beginning when he was an undergraduate in the College of Arts & Sciences in the late 1930s. His influence lives on in the Mead Endowment, established by alumni in 2002, that funds student-faculty interactions beyond the classroom.
A Richmond native, Mead was recruited to his alma mater and joined the music faculty in 1953 after earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He expanded what was then a small music department with only three full-time faculty members. After several years as acting department chair, he served two terms formally heading the department, from 1959 to 1962 and from 1966 to 1974. At the end of his tenure, the faculty numbered nine and student enrollment in music courses and performance groups grew from fewer than 200 to almost 2,000. Mead also helped raise funds to boost the holdings and quality of the music library.
But it was his openness, his ability to listen to students that became legendary.
Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of Arts & Sciences, dedicated her blog to Mead on Monday, calling him “our valentine.” She wrote, “Boots Mead shaped the life of the University and its students – and what they aspire to be, through personal example and the relationships he forged here as a faculty member, mentor and confidant to all of us lucky enough to have spent time with him. He understood that the students whose lives he shaped also shaped him and his rare gift to connect, and teach.”
In a book U.Va. recently published to showcase Mead’s contributions to and memories of the University, which was funded by 1998 alumna Amy Griffin, he recounted his decades on Grounds and how he came to realize what was most meaningful to him as an educator.
“Gradually, largely through the influence of students, I have realized that a more important mission for me, and one I came to quite spontaneously, quite naturally, was helping students to be liberated in their thinking, in their aspirations, in their personality, in their honesty with themselves, in their identity,” he wrote.
Mead and his wife, Sally, who started the Charlottesville chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, regularly invited students to their house for a class, a meeting and for dinner.
From some of the ensuing friendships, students asked if he would meet with them regularly for a similar conversational setting. In the early 1970s, he created his fourth-year liberal arts seminar, an informal Socratic forum where he and the students discussed topics they had submitted and agreed upon. Student enthusiasm for the seminar continued, and he led it until last fall.
When he retired in 1996, hundreds of students responded by establishing the Mead Endowment, which provides funding for faculty members to “walk in the footsteps of Boots,” enabling a professor to carry out a “dream idea” – a project that is more personal and interactive than a traditional classroom. Faculty from many of the University’s schools and departments have created projects that have ranged from an astronomy field trip to Chile to a hands-on exploration of the mathematics of beekeeping to enacting a religious pilgrimage by hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Tom Darbyshire, a 1982 School of Architecture graduate, chairs the endowment and shared his experience of knowing Mead, saying, “He had a remarkable ability to truly listen. He would draw a student into conversation – often during a walk around the Lawn or over tea at the Colonnade Club – learn their interests and then connect them to a faculty member, organization or fellow student who shared it, often by inviting the student to one of the frequent dinners he held at his home.”
Darbyshire mentioned that Mead’s wife often brought home animals that needed care, and “at any given trip you might encounter raccoons or a baby deer wandering about. An owl lived in the dining room for years,” he wrote in an email.
In addition, two former students produced a book for Mead in 2004 – which Darbyshire said Mead considered “a prized collection,” containing letters from about 80 alumni who wrote about what they learned from him. Anne C. Magnan, a 2001 College alumna, spearheaded the project with Bradford C. Walker from the class of 2004. She wrote that while Mead always made her feel welcome, he was challenging, too.
“In welcoming me, you also expected that I would be an active participant in the conversation – and what great conversations those were,” she said.
Mead described it this way: “By having students to my home, I was simply carrying on the relationship between students and faculty as designed for in the Academical Village and as modeled by Jefferson when he invited students to Monticello.”
Student groups and the University bestowed many awards upon Mead, including U.Va.’s highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Award, in 1989. A member of the Seven Society, he was also a member of the Raven Society and had a decades-long special relationship with the Z Society. Over the years, he received the faculty award from the IMP, Z and Raven societies, as well as the Honor Committee.
Mead is survived by daughters, Lindsay Lowdon and Jenny Mead, both of Charlottesville; two granddaughters; and an extended family.
A memorial service will be held March 29 at 3 p.m. at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church, with a reception following at the Colonnade Club in Pavilion VII.
Arts & Sciences has copies of “Boots Mead: Eight Decades at the University,” available for delivery upon request. Contributions to the Mead Endowment are encouraged in exchange for the autobiography. To request a copy, email your name and mailing address to Juliet Trail at firstname.lastname@example.org.