Charm school: The importance of being Ernest


Ernest "Boots" Mead

Ernest Mead is the most beloved teacher at UVA ever. If that seems like hyperbole, consider: How many professors have been asked to teach a seminar so popular that even after retiring in 1996 and now at age 90, students still clamor for Mr. Mead's Liberal Arts Seminar? How many profs have students who set up a "faculty dream endowment" in their names? How many are so esteemed that the Seven Society donates $777,777.77 to continue Mead's inspirational way with students in a younger generation of faculty?

"So, tell me about the newspaper business," Mead, professor emeritus of music, asks a reporter, who chats away until she realizes that she's the one supposed to be interviewing Mead. That's the questioning and genuine interest in others one of his former students has dubbed the "Mead Method."

And Mead's relationships with students stick, long after graduation. "Age seems to be of no consequence at all," he observes. That's confirmed by a photo in his living room in which he's surrounded by Kappa Sigs, all holding glasses, all beaming, all decades younger than Mead.

 "I got together with a student from 1954, and we took up where we left off," says Mead of his most recent weekend.

Richmond-raised Mead started playing the piano when he was four. "It drove my parents nuts," he chuckles. When he came to the University of Virginia in the 1930s, he wanted to study other subjects besides music, such as German, Greek, and biology. Besides, the music department was "very weak when I came here," he says.

After a stint playing professionally, Mead went to Harvard for his master's and Ph.D. in music. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany, and assumed he'd return to Harvard to teach. 

But by then, two professors persuaded him to come to UVA. He'd married Sally Jackson, who shortened his nickname to "Boots" (and later founded the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA), and they decided to return to Charlottesville.

The music department had not improved during his absence, and actually had shrunk to one person, he remembers. "After a couple of years, I was made chairman of the department," he says. "That was a large order because it had fallen to nothing."

After losing an eminent scholar because UVA's music library was so inadequate, Mead began to beg and borrow to get money to fill the book order cards he had stacked on his desk. He called his friend, Connie Darden, wife of former UVA president Colgate Darden. After chatting about children and family, he said, "Connie, I need some money." 

The request was "like the curtain coming down on a new scene," he recalls. He told her he needed $10,000 for all the music books he wanted, and in the late 1950s, "That was a lot of money," he notes.  Within a week, he had a $20,000 donation from the Dardens for the music library, now one of the finest music collections on the East Coast. 

Back in those days, "There was separation between faculty and students," says Mead. "Relations were very gentlemanly, but never became personal."

That began to change during the tumultuous days of late '60s and early '70s.

"You know how a remark will make a profound impression?" he asks. One was in 1970, when his student, Dave Bowman, received an award from the Raven Society, and in accepting it, said, "I am particularly grateful to the society in that it has given me the opportunity to be in contact with Ernest Mead," relates the professor. "That knocked me for a loop. I was speechless. It made me realize what I'd said had meant something to this youngster."

That same spring, the governor of Virginia read the Riot Act that prohibited more than three people to gather at the university, and Mead discovered riot police stretched across the Lawn in front of the Rotunda, "arms akimbo with riot sticks." 

What shook him even more than seeing police occupy the university was a young man who ran out to him and said, "Mr Mead, where can I hide? The police are on Grounds and have pulled students out of their rooms," Mead says. "That made a very strong impression on me and I thought, as much as I could, I wasn't going to have students hiding."

As a faculty adviser in the '70s, Mead recalls taking his hungry and exhausted new first-year students on a Sunday afternoon walk to Old Cabell Hall, where he'd point to an inscription and read it in Greek to them. "I'd say, 'Don't you ever forget that,'" he instructs.

Translated, the message is, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

"I hope it made an impression on them," he says.

Apparently it did, Mr. Mead. Apparently it did. 

Age: 90

Why here? To teach and be taught.

What's worst about living here? Seeing land disappear under settlements.

Favorite hangout? The Lawn

Most overrated virtue? Conformity

People would be surprised to know: My past

What would you change about yourself? I and life have made the changes.

Proudest accomplishment? Evoking the sounds I want from the piano.

People find most annoying about you: My Southern accent

Whom do you admire? Obama

Favorite book? The Go-Between God

Subject that causes you to rant? Not being sure of things or of what you are saying– and being too sure!

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Technology

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Those who continue to live in the 20th century.

What do you drive? Subaru Forester

In your car CD player right now: Nothing

Next journey? To Greece and my ancestors

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Thinking I know all the answers.

Regret: I didn't know then what I know now.

Favorite comfort food: Crème brûlée

Always in your refrigerator: Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Ice Cream

Must-see TV: NewsHour with Jim Lehrer 

Describe a perfect day. Good music, ideas, and good company

Walter Mitty fantasy: Flying to the moon on gossamer wings

Who'd play you in the movie? My friend, Gregory Peck

Most embarrassing moment? Getting too close while trying to read the name tag worn by a pretty woman.

Best advice you ever got? Give your name to strangers.

Favorite bumper sticker? You are too close.


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