Well-loved theatre philanthopist Jaylee Mead has died

Dr. Jaylee Montague Mead, an astronomer who opened up the universe of theater in this City through acts of shrewd and profound generosity, passed away from congestive heart failure this morning.

Jaylee Mead in 2010., named 2010-2011 Ambassador to the Arts for Washington, DC.

Mead was born Barbara Jaylee Montague, the daughter of a North Carolina general store owner, on June 14, 1929.  Her obvious intellect, and the encouragement of her parents and teachers, led to an undergraduate degree in mathematics from UNC-Greensboro in 1951, a master’s degree in education from Stanford three years later, and, in 1970, a PhD in astronomy from Georgetown. By that time she had already been working at the Goddard Flight Center, for NASA.

Goddard was also where she played – in Goddard’s Music and Drama (MAD) productions, which she described as “[o]ur employee theater group which produces Broadway-type musicals in a dinner theater format.” MAD’s website quotes her as saying that she was “just turned on by the theater. It’s something that brings great joy.”

Gilbert Mead, a geophysicist who also worked for Goddard and played piano for MAD productions, was another source of great joy for her. Jaylee Mead, who had been previously married to and divorced from Gordon Burley, was charmed from the git-go. “When you see how somebody works, you get to know their style,” she told MAD’s website. They married in 1968, two years after they met.

Gilbert Mead, in addition to being a first-rate scientist, also happened to be the heir to the almost unimaginable Consolidated Papers fortune – a circumstance which she found agreeable but not profoundly important. “I never wanted money to set me apart. I wanted to be just like everybody else,” she told the Washington Post.

But she and her husband (who died in 2007) were unlike anybody else in one particular: they gave over fifty million dollars to local theaters. One of their primary beneficiaries was Arena Stage, whose architecturally stunning building is now called Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.

The Meads were also huge benefactors of Studio Theatre, a company in which Jaylee took a special interest. She served as Chair of the Studio Theatre Board between 1994 and 2000, and was on the search committee which ultimately selected David Muse as the company’s first artistic director who wasn’t named Joy Zinoman.

Mead was as sought-after for her piercing theater intelligence as she was for her generosity. In addition to serving on Studio’s Board, she also served on the Board of Directors of Arena Stage and of theatreWashington. She was a well-known habitué of Washington’s medium-sized and smaller stages as well, and often had astute and penetrating comments about productions, actors and playwrights (among her favorites: Holly Twyford, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Rogers & Hammerstein).

Mead was a scientist, a philanthropist, and a theater thought leader. But to know the real Jaylee Mead, who captured the heart of Gilbert Mead, you have to go here or here.

Funeral arrangements and tributes will be announced here.

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