Jaylee Mead dies: NASA astronomer was a cultural benefactor in D.C.

Bill O'Leary/THE WASHINGTON POST - Arts patrons Jaylee and Gilbert Mead performed a duet in their residence at the Watergate in 1996.

Jaylee Mead and her husband, Gilbert, 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 general store owner in rural North Carolina.

They worked together for years at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, he as a geophysicist and she as an astronomer, one of the few women of her generation to pursue a career in astrophysics.

Besides their love of the stars, the Meads shared a love of the performing arts. Beginning in the late 1980s, after years of quiet patronage of local playhouses, they established themselves as two of the most generous arts philanthropists in the capital. Together, they helped transform Washington’s cultural scene by donating more than $50 million to local theaters, including Studio Theatre and Arena Stage.

Their generosity is widely credited with helping complete the revival of D.C. neighborhoods, including the Southwest Waterfront and the once-crime-ridden area along 14th Street NW.

“It’s just like in ‘Hello, Dolly!’,” Dr. Mead once told The Washington Post in her rich North Carolina accent. “Money should be spread around, like manure. Dolly Levi says that, and I really believe it.”

Dr. Mead died Sept. 14 at her home in the District. She was 83. Her death, of congestive heart failure, was confirmed by her sister Mary Watts.

One of the playhouses the Meads liked to frequent was Studio Theatre, which was founded in 1978 and in its early years put on productions in a rat-infested abandoned hot dog warehouse on Church Street NW.

In the early 1990s, the Meads wrote a check for $1 million, placed it in an envelope and slid it across a card table to Studio’s founding artistic director, Joy Zinoman. The money helped finance the theater’s expansion at its current location at 14th and P streets NW.

“One could make the case that the theater wouldn’t exist without that moment,” Zinoman said in an interview. “It was a very bold moment.”

Thanks in large part to the Meads’ continued philanthropic leadership, Studio Theatre has continued to grow into an even larger complex, including the 200-seat Mead Theatre. The surrounding area, with its clubs and flower shops, condominiums and a Whole Foods grocery store, is today considered one of the swankier areas in the city.

“I remember that corridor when . . . people felt that they were taking their lives in their hands when they would go to their theater,” said Jennifer Cover Payne, the president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. “Now it is our showcase street.”

Gilbert Mead died in 2007, three years before the opening of perhaps the couple’s most dramatic project: the fully renovated Arena Stage, 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 Arena complex includes working space for artists and has been cited as a key element of urban revitalization efforts in Southwest Washington.

“I don’t think that we could overstate the importance of Studio Theatre at 14th Street or Arena Stage in Southwest when discussing the revitalization and renaissance of those areas,” said Linda Levy Grossman, president of the arts group theatreWashington.

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 became involved with theater in Washington in the 1960s, Dr. Mead once noted in an interview, many actors had to go to New York to find work.

“Our hope was to keep them here,” she said.

Other beneficiaries of the Meads’ largess include the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, which offers free daily concerts.

The couple also underwrote the Mead Theatre Lab for experimental plays at the Flashpoint cultural center in downtown Washington and the Mead Lobby at Signature Theatre in Arlington County. Over the years, they supported other local organizations, including the Levine School of Music, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Washington Chorus, as well as dozens of individual theatrical productions across the region.

In addition, the Mead Family Foundation, founded in 1989, supports education and crisis prevention efforts for youths. According to the foundation, about $1 million is awarded annually.

The Meads’ contributions to cultural life in Washington are often compared to those of Arlene and Robert Kogod, whose philanthropy has benefited theaters and museums, and Victoria and Roger Sant, who gave millions of dollars to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Symphony Orchestra and other organizations.

Dr. Mead remained a mainstay of local theaters after her husband’s death. The couple had hosted many cast parties at their residence at the Watergate complex, where they moved after retiring from Goddard. In a nod to her previous life as a NASA scientist, the mirrored walls of her bathroom were painted — accurately — to show the planets of the solar system.

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.

She and Gilbert Mead were married in 1968. Dr. Mead worked at Goddard for 33 years as a mathematician and astronomer, retiring in 1992. She was known internationally, said former colleague Milt Halem, for her work on a computerized database of stars and galaxies. It is used by, among others, astronomers seeking to identify new celestial bodies.

Dr. Mead credited Goddard’s amateur employee theater group with sparking her interest in the arts. She joined the troupe, and her roles included Nellie Forbush in the musical “South Pacific” and Vera Charles in the musical “Mame.” Her idol, she once told The Post, was Ethel Merman.

Over the years, Dr. Mead chaired or served on the boards of Arena Stage, 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 Post for distinguished community service in 1996.

Her first marriage, to Gordon Burley, ended in divorce.

Her stepson Robert Mead died in 2002. Survivors include three stepchildren, Betsy Mead of Silver Spring, Diana Mead of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Stanton W. Mead II of Middletown, Md.; a sister; and five grandchildren.

“When I married Gil,” Dr. Mead once told The 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 everybody else.”