Friend. Mentor. Leader. Steward…
The list of adjectives to describe Ernest Campbell “Boots” Mead, Jr. could go on forever. Yet if you had to pick just one, “treasure” would do just fine.
Few figures have embodied Jefferson’s vision for the University as well as Boots did. Having experienced the Academical Village as an undergraduate in the 1930s, he dedicated himself to its ideals when he returned to join the music faculty in 1953. Boots Mead would go on to make an unforgettable mark on the music program, leading a significant expansion of the performance ensembles and music library holdings, among many other accomplishments.
His greatest legacy, however, is one that extends far beyond any single discipline, and his greatest teachings could never be confined to a classroom. Boots had a gift shared with the world’s greatest musicians, and for that matter, its greatest people: he listened. Oftentimes he taught his greatest lessons on walks down the Lawn, or at the dinners he so loved to host at his home, or over tea at the Colonnade Club. His beloved fourth-year seminar, an informal discussion on a variety of student-led topics, was a favorite from its inception in the 1970’s to the time of his retirement in 1996…and beyond. He would teach that seminar for the final time in the fall of 2013.
Boots Mead passed away on February 13, 2014, at the age of 95.
He talked about how he came to understand his larger purpose in education in a recently-published book that celebrated his contributions to the University. “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.”
The impact Boots Mead had on the University of Virginia will live far beyond him thanks to the Mead Endowment, established by alumni in 2002 to fund student-faculty interactions beyond the classroom. It has already funded “Dream Ideas” that have brought students and faculty together to explore endangered coral reefs in Panama, to produce an Off-Broadway play in New York, and to play bluegrass music right here in Charlottesville.
How appropriate it feels to think of just how much listening is going on in his name.