When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, he set forth his vision of education not simply on paper, but in mortar, bricks, and marble. Through his architectural design for the University, he made clear he expected faculty to be not just teachers to their students, but next-door neighbors, friends, and mentors.
For the last few decades, no professor at the University has personified that vision more perfectly than Ernest “Boots” Mead. Whenever he encountered particularly promising young students, he invited them to join him for a walk through the gardens of the Lawn, or for tea at the Colonnade Club, or better yet, for dinner at his home.
Within minutes, he would draw out each student’s hidden talents, hopes, and aspirations. Within days, he would introduce the young man or woman to other students of like mind, to University organizations where he or she might flourish, or to faculty and administrators who could foster the student’s unique abilities. Within weeks, that young person’s college experience would become dramatically richer, as would the entire University community.
If a student were truly lucky, Mr. Mead would invite him or her to participate in one of his famous seminars, small classes that initially met in Mr. Mead’s office, with its remarkable view of the Lawn and Rotunda, and in later years met in Mr. Mead’s home or in various Lawn buildings.
Mr. Mead was also an important advisor, official or behind-the-scenes, to countless University organizations and was even inducted into a fraternity in his sixties.
Upon his retirement in 1996, hundreds of Mr. Mead’s former students gathered at Alumni Hall for a black-tie dinner in his honor. One after another, they rose to toast their mentor and friend. Every story was different, and yet they were the same: heartfelt tributes to the man who, by taking them under his wing, had drawn them out of their small world and into a bigger one.
Even in his retirement, Mr. Mead continued to foster connections between students and the University as well as students and alumni. It was not uncommon for him to facilitate an introduction between alumni that blossoms into a relationship benefiting those alumni as well as their extended communities. Mr. Mead also continued to offer his seminar to second-semester fourth years and it remained, as it has always been, an experience students hold in the highest regard.
Mr. Mead passed away on February 13, 2014.