Ernest Campbell Mead Jr., known to most of us as Boots Mead, passed away on the eve of Valentine’s Day. It was an unusually beautiful evening on the Lawn, with the snow – pristine, velvety and silent – falling seemingly forever down in its maternal and protective ways. The students, happy as pups, were sledding down from the Rotunda, throwing snow balls, and crafting, on a whim, snowmen of all proportions and types: some resembled TJ sitting on his chair on the west side of the Lawn, some resembled the evil Penguin in Batman, and others, simply two balls on top of each other, happy to be here today and gone tomorrow when the sun was out. Laughter, like the glow from the lamps along the colonnades, pierced and then smoothed the nightfall.
I felt I knew but a sliver of Boots, a complex man: he was a teacher by vocation. If only we could multiply him by the hundreds, was the thought that used to race through my head.
He arrived at his vocation, I suspect, late in life. He was a pianist when he first showed up on the Lawn as a sixteen year old, with a Steinway that his parents had bought him, and he remained so to the last day of his life. Then he was also, he said to me, “a member of the faculty, an administrator, and then a teacher,” who was “interested in how he felt something should be done.” Along the way, he changed, largely through the influence of his students. He discovered another, an altogether different gift – a gift of listening, to prod them gently and patiently, to be liberated in their thinking. “I was interested in the student primarily as in his person or his pursuit of truth, basically the truth of him – or herself, the only true path, I believe, to freedom and responsibility.”
Students weren’t the only ones he helped change. I also benefited from his gift of listening. I used to listen to the pregnant silence before he would ask me a question or two, with a gentle cadence that filled the room, as if in the wake of all that I might have forgotten, of what was truly important in life.
A southerner from Richmond, he was more keenly interested in change than anyone I met. C. Vann Woodward said in The Strange Career of Jim Crow that “The people of the South should be the last Americans to expect indefinite continuity of their institutions and social arrangements.” A traditionalist, he was always fascinated by changes, big and small. Every time I saw him he greeted me with the same question: “Dean Woo, what’s new in the College?”
One of his favorite passages was from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King:
The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
I can’t think of three lines that summarize so well how he felt in his eight decades at the University. Boots had a heart so big, it contained those he loved and all those in the University and beyond:
Old and enormous are the stars,
Old and small is the heart, and it
Holds more than all the stars, being,
Without space, greater than the vast expanse.
(Fernando Pessoa, from Ruba’iyat)
Thank you, Boots, for all your Valentine’s Day gifts.
PS: The College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences recently published his autobiography, titled Boots Mead: Eight Decades at the University. The Office of the Dean has copies available for delivery upon request. Contributions to the Mead Endowment, which honors the example that Boots set by nurturing the interaction between faculty and students, are encouraged in exchange for Mead’s autobiography.
A link to his obituary in The Daily Progress is available here. A 3 p.m. memorial service will be held on Saturday, March 29, at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church, followed by a reception at the Colonnade Club. In lieu of flowers, Boots’ family suggests that memorial contributions be made to the Mead Endowment (P.O. Box 400314, Charlottesville VA, 22904), or to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA (P.O. Box 7047, Charlottesville VA 22906). You may also post condolences to his daughters, Jenny Mead and Lindsay Lowdon, and to the rest of his family at Hill and Wood Funeral Service’s website.