WASHINGTON — Jaylee Mead, a NASA astronomer who married into a paper manufacturing fortune and with her husband, Gilbert, helped transform Washington’s cultural scene by donating more than $50 million to local theaters, died Sept. 14 at her home in Washington. She was 83.
Her death, from congestive heart failure, was confirmed by her sister Mary Watts.
For decades Gilbert and Jaylee Mead lived in Greenbelt, Md., and worked in relative obscurity at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, he as a geophysicist and she as an astronomer. They came, in some ways, from different universes. Gilbert was an heir to the riches of Consolidated Papers in Wisconsin – one of the largest papermakers in North America – while Jaylee was the daughter of a ge neral store owner in rural North Carolina.
The two scientists met through an amateur Broadway troupe for Goddard employees, found a kinship in their love of the theater and married in 1968. In the late 1980s, after years of quiet patronage of local playhouses, the Meads established themselves as two of the most generous arts philanthropists in the capital.
“It’s just like in ‘Hello, Dolly!’,” Jaylee Mead once told The Washington Post. “Money should be spread around, like manure. Dolly Levi says that, and I really believe it.”
Gilbert Mead died in 2007, three years before the opening of the couple’s most dramatic project: the fully renovated Arena Stage in Washington, renamed the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in recognition of the couple’s $35 million in gifts and matching pledges.
With a new glass entrance and cantilevered roof, the complex includes working space for artists and has been cited as a key element of nearby urban revitalization efforts. Other beneficiaries of the Meads’ largesse include the 200-seat Mead Theatre at the Studio Theatre, which specializes in contemporary works, and the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, which offers free daily conce rts for tourists and Washingtonians. The couple also underwrote the Mead Lobby at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and supported the Levine School of Music and Washington Chorus.
The Arena Stage project was a fitting capstone for the Meads’ decades of philanthropic work. Founded in 1950, the company was created during a national movement to cultivate regional theater across the United States. When she first became involved with theater in Washington in the 1960s, Mead once noted in an interview, many actors had to go to New York City to find work.
“Our hope was to keep them here,” she said.
The Meads’ contributions to cultural life in Washington are often compared to those of Arlene and Robert Kogod, who built the courtyard connecting the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, and Victoria and Roger Sant, who gave millions of dollars to organizations including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Symphony Orchestra.
Barbara Jaylee Montague was born June 14, 1929, near Clayton, N.C., southeast of Raleigh.
Encouraged by her parents and teachers to pursue higher education, she received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1951 and a master’s degree in education from Stanford University in 1954.
In 1959, she was working for the State Department in Washington when she was recruited by NASA. At Georgetown University, where she received a doctorate in astronomy in 1970, she studied with the celebrated astronomer Vera Rubin.
Mead worked at Goddard for 33 years as a mathematician and astronomer, retiring in 1992. She helped create a computerized database of stars and galaxies, a tool used by astronomers seeking to identify new celestial bodies. Mead credited Goddard’s theater group with sparking her interest in the arts.
Over the years, Mead chaired or served on the boards of the Arena Stage, the Studio Theatre, the Washington Theatre Awards Society, the Carnegie Institution for Science and the National Children’s Museum. She and her husband received numerous honors, included one from The Washington Post for distinguished community service in 1996.
Her first marriage, to Gordon Burley, ended in divorce. In addition to her sister, survivors include three stepchildren, Betsy Mead of Silver Spring, Md., Diana Mead of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Stanton W. Mead II of Middletown, Md.; and five grandchildren.
“When I married Gil,” Mead once told The Washington Post, “he would say to me, ‘One day, there will be considerably more money.’ But I didn’t want to believe our life would be any different, because wealth has never been one of my concerns. My concern has been having good friends, and wealth can separate you from them. . . .I never wanted money to set me apart. I wanted to be just like e verybody else.”