An Appreciation of the Late Jaylee Mead

Leslie Milk remembers the philanthropist and theater devotee, who died yesterday.

By: Leslie Milk

Jaylee Mead, who died of congestive heart failure at her Watergate apartment yesterday, always had her eyes on the stars. She was an astronomer at Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt when she and her late husband, Gilbert Mead, an astrophysicist, joined Goddard’s amateur theater group and discovered their mutual love of musicals.

Gilbert played the piano and often served as musical director. Jaylee got on stage and loved it. She appeared in several productions, including Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin, in which she played the title role.

The Meads didn’t have much experience with professional theater when they first ventured to downtown DC to see a show. It was an experience that transformed them both, she would later say.

During their early days in Greenbelt, downtown DC theaters seemed as distant as Beltsville is from Broadway. But before the Meads retired from NASA—Gilbert in 1987, Jaylee in 1992—they had begun to realize, “Hey, there’s a big world out there.”

The Meads were soon starstruck a second time—this time with professional theater in Washington. Jaylee joined the board of Studio Theatre, and Gilbert signed on at Arena Stage.

When Gilbert’s father died in 1988, the couple used his inheritance to create the Gilbert and Jaylee Mead Family Foundation. They began to support local theaters at a new level.

One of the auditoriums at Studio Theatre is named for them. They also made major contributions to Signature Theatre, the Kennedy Center, and performing-arts groups. But by far the greatest contribution was one Jaylee made after Gilbert died—$35 million to Arena Stage to fund its new venue, named the Mead Center for American Theater.

Jaylee always gave far more than money. It was the Meads who convinced Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith to produce her first major musical, South Pacific. Jaylee was in the front row at hundreds of shows, the most enthusiastic audience any actor could wish for. After Gilbert died in 2007, Jaylee was often on the arm of Victor Shargai, president of TheatreWashington. She grew more frail, but her distinctive short silver hair and broad smile remained an opening night fixture at Washington theaters.

I once asked her about her passion.

“We don’t play golf. We don’t play bridge,” she replied. “We just love being involved in the theater.”