Heir to Fortune, NASA Physicist Was a Major Patron of the Theater

Jaylee and Gilbert Mead, a retired NASA physicist and heir to a paper company, have given more than $50 million to Washington area theaters.
Jaylee and Gilbert Mead, a retired NASA physicist and heir to a paper company, have given more than $50 million to Washington area theaters. (Courtesy Of Arena Stage)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Gilbert Mead, 76, a retired NASA physicist and an heir to a paper manufacturing fortune who emerged in the 1990s as one of the most prolific arts philanthropists in Washington, died May 29 at the Washington Home hospice after a stroke. He had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Privately and through their family foundation, Gilbert Mead and his wife, Jaylee, have given more than $50 million to theaters in the Washington region. With Robert and Arlene Kogod as well as Roger and Victoria Sant, the Meads were among the leading private benefactors to local arts organizations.

The Meads made their biggest financial commitment last year, pledging $35 million to Arena Stage as part of the theater's $120 million building and renovation campaign.

The Arena Stage money -- $10 million outright and the rest in matching grants -- showed what had long been the hallmark of their philanthropic approach: They issued challenges to arts organizations to get other wealthy donors involved.

"We don't want to be the single big donor in the bunch," Mead said this year.

When completed in 2010, the overall facility will be known as Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The Meads had previously sponsored an entire season at Arena Stage and musicals and shows at other Washington performing arts venues.

"They were amazingly strategic about maximizing their philanthropy and engaging others," said Stephen Richard, Arena Stage's executive director. "The amounts were large, but it was also the number of organizations they supported."

Other key recipients of the Meads' largesse included the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, the Studio Theatre (which named an auditorium in their honor), Arlington's Signature Theatre, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co., the Washington Ballet, the Olney Theatre Center and the Levine School of Music. They also funded the Mead Theatre Lab at the Flashpoint, an arts space in Northwest Washington that serves groups without a home theater.

"They have really transformed the community," Jennifer Cover Payne, president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy this year. "You will probably find the Meads' name attached to and associated with more arts organizations than any other philanthropist in this region."

Gilbert Dunbar Mead was born May 31, 1930, in Madison, Wis. He was raised in Wisconsin Rapids, where his paternal grandfather, George Mead, co-founded in 1894 what became Consolidated Papers.

Daily involvement in the business did not excite Gilbert Mead. At the private Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., he excelled in sports and was president of the chemistry-physics club. He was a 1952 physics graduate of Yale University and received a doctorate in physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1962.

After Berkeley, he joined the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt as a researcher in theoretical space physics. He made important early mathematical studies of the Earth's magnetosphere, the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. With a Goddard colleague, he co-edited a 1968 volume called "Introduction to Space Science," written by specialists for lay readers.

In 1975, he became head of the geophysics branch and worked with a team that used laser beams and reflector satellites to find the Earth's tectonic plates within an inch of precision. By the time he retired in 1987, he managed a NASA grants program affecting university scientists studying the earth's surface.

Goddard played a crucial role in his artistic development. He became involved in a workplace theatrical group called MAD, an acronym for Music and Drama. Having learned as a child to play piano by ear, he served as musical director and conducted the orchestra. His second wife, Goddard astronomer Jaylee Montague Mead, acted in productions.

"We started realizing there was a big world out there that did the same thing, only much better," he told The Washington Post in 1997. "So we got subscriptions to places like Arena, the Studio and the Kennedy Center. It kind of overwhelmed us at first. But we learned to appreciate what it meant to do a really professional play, and we were able to bring that knowledge back to our MAD group."

Mead lived in relative anonymity and frugality for decades. He moved from a modest Greenbelt home to the tony Watergate after retirement so as not to isolate co-workers who knew little of his sizable fortune. He shunned first-class travel and other perks of wealth.

He served many years on the board of Consolidated Papers, until the company was sold -- initially against his wishes -- to the Finnish forest products company Stora Enso for about $4 billion.

He contributed more than $1 million to a community foundation in Wisconsin Rapids to help the town through the transition after the company's headquarters moved with the sale.

Meanwhile, the Meads established what is now the Mead Family Foundation, which has about $20 million in assets and gives $1 million in annual grants to education and family service programs mostly in Washington and Montgomery County.

The Meads were given numerous civic and cultural awards, including a Washington Post award for distinguished community service in 1996. "I guess I realized that you can have wealth and not be ashamed of it, and that you ought to use it in a constructive, useful manner, not just to enhance your own lifestyle," Gilbert Mead said the next year.

Mead graduated from the University of Maryland law school after retiring from Goddard. He sang in choral groups and played Broadway show tunes on the Steinway at his apartment.

Periodically, he was enticed onstage before far-larger audiences. About a decade ago, he and his wife dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus and sang a duet called "Christmas Together, My Darling" at the Washington Chamber Symphony's children's Christmas concert before 2,000 people.

His marriage to Marilyn Kroll Mead ended in divorce. A son from that marriage, Robert Mead, died in 2002.

In addition to his second wife, whom he married in 1968, survivors include three children from his first marriage, Betsy Mead of Rockville, Diana Mead-Siohan of Palm Coast, Fla., and Stanton W. Mead II of Middletown; a brother; a sister; and five grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company