Boots Mead, Our Valentine

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.

To request a copy of Boots Mead: Eight Decades at the University, please email your name and complete mailing address to Juliet Trail at .

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.

10 Responses to “Boots Mead, Our Valentine”

  1. David Y. Miller, Class of 1957 says:

    I am very sorry to hear of the passing of Dr. Meade. Although not a music major, I love classical music and took his Music Appreciation course in the mid 1950s. He was an excellent lecturer, involving his students in discussion; often playing the piano to illustrate a point. He increased my knowledge and understanding of the music and thus my appreciation of it. Some of his personal anecdotes, like how playing the carillon was difficult because of the delay between shoving the levers down and hearing the bells sound were priceless. On some afternoons, he would take a turntable, an amplifier, and a large loudspeaker out in front of Old Cabell Hall and play music for an hour or two. Students would come to sit on the lawn and listen. I miss those days…

  2. I still marvel at what one could pick up ‘by osmosis’ at a place like UVa and ‘around Grounds.’ I took Music 1-2 from Boots Mead, and I had to put in extra time at Old Cabell Hall on weekends, listening to 78 rpm records, trying to hear what I was supposed to identify on tests. Then Boots made me write essays on “Rite of Spring” and other pieces, to boost my paltry grades. Thus I had a special time or two with Boots, and got so much from it. He told about studying at Mills College and hearing Dizzy Gillespie in person. And his class, Music 1-2, was no gut! Boots taught many of us how to listen, lest we forget.

  3. Janet Rosselle says:

    My condolences to the University and to the family on the passing of Boots Mead.

  4. Robert Pringle says:

    I overlapped for four years with your father. He gave his great heart and soul to the University.

  5. Susan GLover Simms says:

    I am so old that my alumna daughter, Col ’10, sent this blog to me…after I spent the weekend in COMPLETE mourning AND joy over learning of the passing of Boots from Jenny, his daughter,..the BEST professor and friend known to man….I shared it with her, she didn’t understand…then she read THIS, your blog and maybe felt a SMALL part of what I was trying to share with her……I was COL ’87 and my brother COL’ ’83……Boots WAS the University…he was ALWAYS on the Lawn, ALWAYS a part of us….as we chopped wood for 33 West, as we climbed on Jefferson’s lap..and as we went to sound proof rooms in Cabell …I did my entire wedding in BACH…just because I took a course , once, on just him..from this amazing man…He came to my brother’s untimely funeral in 2001 , because that is who he was. there are just NO words, unless you knew him. for me? the miracle..the BEST part…i had lost touch with Boots after my brother’s death in 2001…life happens. THen, we had this snow storm in Charlotte last week, i was bored, i was searching online and , without trying…found Jenny, his daughter…Told her some words from my brother that she shared wtih Boots…told her that Jerry would be singing, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”…and would meet him at the hereafter…he died the next day. Honestly, there IS no greater story than this…out of the blue, so beautiful, so poetic, so Godly…in his own way..THAT was Boots Mead, at least to me. I am glad my daughter shared this with me. PLEASE let the University know…THIS is our Heritage..thank you …thank you.

  6. As a woefully shy self-taught trumpet player and unformed first year student I met Ernest Mead 50 years ago. I had been encouraged to study architecture, but thought 5 years was entirely too long a passage, and at UVa began hearing live classical music. The London Symphony (George Solti conducting) opened sonic doors playing Britten’s Sea Interludes and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. I foolishly thought string quartets were for wimps, then heard the Hungarians play Bartok’s 4th, and was knocked upside the head by the music’s ferocity, spookiness and danger. About the same time, Donald McInnis’ theory class made me realize music was a language with grammar and syntax, which for some strange reason drew me in.
    Fathering me into a world of structural revelations and unfathomable beauty, Ernest Mead encouraged my discoveries of music’s expressive power. I wrote papers and he gently reined in some of my overcooked metaphors. I was invited to his home for Thanksgiving and was the solitary listener when he played Brahms at the piano (strange, rich and satisfying to my uninitiated ears). One time he commented on the distraction of arthritis in his fingers, yet he accomplished so much over the decades to follow. At one of our looser sessions he mentioned having searched out folk music in the mountains. I never knew him as “Boots” – our relationship remained relatively formal as did our ever present coats and ties. Facing the draft upon graduation in 1968, I followed the advice of a graduate student and enlisted for an elite army band, then used the GI bill to further study music at SUNY Stony Brook and Columbia where I earned a DMA.
    It’s a cliché that a person of my age fancies how much better he could do in a past situation given current life experience – what conversations we might now have! So it’s wonderful to know that many students followed me and were inspired. I trust they too experienced his exceptional generosity. Hearing of Ernest Mead’s death I listened to some sad ballads performed by traditional acoustic musicians Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin. I could imagine a young “Boots” nearing Bristol, finding Scots-Irish gems on a mountain top, maybe even hearing Brahms in some lonesome valley.

  7. Lindsay Lowdon says:

    What beautiful tribute to my father. Thank you.

    Lindsay Lowdon

  8. Jane Longest says:

    Wow! What a wonderful tribute Meredith Woo. After reading your post, I felt I really knew the wonderfully exceptional man.

  9. Randolph Covington says:

    I have three fond memories of Professor Meade.

    Because my bride and I wanted something different from the conventional Mendelssohn, he helped pick the music for my wedding in 1972. The marriage has lasted and so has my affinity for “The Prince of Denmark’s March”. You hear it frequently these days, but it was new to me then.

    Second, in a somewhat checkered academic career at the University, my only A+ came, not in my major, but on a term paper for his music appreciation class. I still have the paper from 1969 and am still proud of it.

    Dinner at his home could be a test. Invited with some others from the class, we were seated at a beautifully appointed table. It was a spring day and the French doors to the patio stood open. In the middle of the meal a full grown ewe wandered in from the back yard, circled the table inspecting us and everything on it and them ambled out. While the students were watching the sheep, Ernie Meade was watching us with great delight.

    I have many fond memories of my UVa years, but Ernie Meade’s is at the top.

    Randy Covington

  10. Hernando Herrera says:

    I stumbled upon Mr. Mead quite mystically in his office in the spring of 1988 despite never having heard of him nor having any interest in music (or his class). Nevertheless, he offered me the gift of friendship which we maintained with annual conversations and dinners for the next 26 years! It is a rare and unique gift that he possessed which allowed a naïve 20-year old to feel so understood and appreciated by a then-70 year old man!

    I was always in awe that he learned to cook his meals after his dear Sallie passed away and I often delighted in watching him “perform magic” in his tiny little kitchen. Then dinner would revolve around philosophical musings and a desire to understand my heart and my experiences better. He never ceased to desire learning from others! I never tired of talking to him and with him…

    I shall miss my annual visits to Fendall Avenue, but I will forever treasure this gentle and vibrant soul who gave his entire heart and passion to our beloved University. Mr. Mead represents the best of what it means to be a Virginia gentleman and a Man of Honor.

    Class of 1989