Boots Mead, Our Valentine

February 17th, 2014

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.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

July 5th, 2013

Three years ago, the College of Arts and Sciences, HKUST, and Peking University entered into a trilateral partnership. The idea was to create research and teaching collaboration among the three institutions that can be enduring. The Jefferson Global Seminars is part of that effort. I want to thank Philip Zelikow, Associate Dean of Graduate Academic Programs in Arts and Sciences, for creating this program with stellar curricular content; and James Lee, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at HKUST, who worked hand and glove with us to make it all possible—administratively, financially, and above all, intellectually. - MW
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Our Honor

March 6th, 2012

In the late fall of 2010 as the economy was beginning to recover from a crisis that destroyed so much of the wealth of the middle class, a number of documentaries and docudramas appeared that asked probing questions about the causes of this catastrophe. One such film was Inside Job, about the culpability of the nation’s elites—not just on Wall Street and Capitol Hill but at research universities, in faculty offices of “thought leaders” who influence policy. In this film professors appeared as technocrats, publishing papers whose economic analysis benefited the corporations where they served as consultants. Read the rest of this entry »

The Meaning of the Authentic

October 21st, 2011

When the student organizers of the Second-Year Council Dinner Series extended their gracious invitation to me to speak, I asked about the topic. I was surprised that they wanted to hear about me. Suddenly I had a chance at Andy Warhol’s dream of fifteen minutes of fame. After a moment of more serious reflection, I realized that the request was a fair one: as their teacher and dean, I ought to be an open book for them to read, one in which they might see a future that means something to them. Read the rest of this entry »

Back to the Shores of Tripoli: The Lessons of 9/11

September 15th, 2011

The magic of youth can transform a nightmare into a memory. Over the past weekend, the students and the University commemorated the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a dizzying array of events—speeches, conferences, exhibits, interfaith dialogues, flag runs, and candlelight vigils. Ubiquitous on the Grounds were students wearing yellow ribbons: we remember 9/11. Read the rest of this entry »

Common Sense Education—or, Rules of Thumb for Life

August 23rd, 2011

In remarks this week to the College’s Class of 2015 and their parents, I spoke about the complex and venerable concept of common sense and its vital place in higher education.

George Santayana, one of America’s greatest philosophers, was also one of its finest cultural observers. In an essay that discusses materialism and idealism in American life, he describes an encounter with the president of Harvard, where he had long been on the faculty. As they walked together, the president asked Santayana how his classes were going. Santayana said fine—the students are intelligent and keen. The president stopped, turned to Santayana, and said, “I meant, how many students are in your classes.” Read the rest of this entry »

Pitch Perfect

June 8th, 2011

On May 30, Jim Tressel, one of the most successful coaches in the history of Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State, resigned in the wake of an NCAA rules violations investigation. It was big news everywhere, but especially in Ohio, where college football couldn’t possibly be any bigger. The Tressel episode is only the most recent case study on the perils of big-time sports at American universities. Storied football programs and the immense funding they both generate and require have put universities like Ohio State on the national map. Yet Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, argued in a book titled “Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education” that college sports, long expected to boost alumni giving, are not in fact good money-makers, especially at universities not near the top of the national football rankings. Instead, Bok says, they exploit students who are often admitted with low grades and test scores and are then given too little time to study. Still, he adds, competition among universities and colleges has kept up the pressure for more aggressive athletic programs, often undermining their educational values. Read the rest of this entry »

Tommy Four

April 4th, 2011

The snow began falling on the Lawn in the hours before dawn of Sunday, March 27. The voices of the students, strolling in twos and threes down the arcades, drifted up to my bedroom in the pavilion and then they grew faint. The snow fell all morning over the Grounds and through the afternoon. It fell silently on the trees that had been planted when the University was founded and in the years that have followed. I watched the snowflakes drifting through the branches of trees already in bloom—cherries, plums, Bradford pears, and star magnolias—and those about to flower. I saw it falling on the daffodils, hyacinths, periwinkles, and Virginia bluebells, and all the brilliant forsythias. When the snow finally stopped, the day suddenly turned dark and cold, with a wind that bites hard into the flesh and into the bone. I remember hearing that with a cold snap like this, flowers may not produce fruit. I was vaguely troubled by what might happen to the white flowering quinces and apricots in the back, whether they might have been damaged. That night, Thomas West Gilliam IV, fondly referred to as “Tommy Four” by family and friends, scaled the roof of the Physics Building with friends. They wanted to take in the night view of the Grounds. Slipping on ice, Tommy fell forty feet to the ground. Read the rest of this entry »

The Quest for the Golden Fleece

February 14th, 2011

Last week I made a visit to Semester at Sea, a shipboard program which the University of Virginia sponsors. It is essentially a floating university that circumnavigates the globe, offering an experience akin to a string of study abroad programs. Nineteen students and four faculty from the University of Virginia are participating this semester, on a voyage that so far has taken them to the Bahamas, Dominica, the Brazilian Amazon, and Ghana; as I write, the ship should be hewing close to the west coast of Africa on its way down to Cape Town. Read the rest of this entry »

Henry Adams, Fellow Virginian

August 23rd, 2010

This blog post is the text of my welcoming remarks to incoming first-year students and their parents delivered on move-in day, last Saturday.

On behalf of the College of Arts & Sciences, its faculty and staff, let me welcome you, on this glorious and cloudless day, to our extended family. We have gathered in Cabell Hall today to participate in a tradition that began nearly two centuries ago: to offer the finest education to our students. Two thirds of you are from the Commonwealth of Virginia. One third of you come from others states and nations. Regardless of your origin, beginning today, you will always be Virginians. And so I begin my remarks by reflecting on the life of a fellow Virginian: Henry Adams.

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