Beloved professor Ernest Mead, 95, passes away
Students, faculty remember his warmth, student-professor relationships
“The University has lost a true treasure.” — Jonathan Blank, former student.
Ernest Mead, a renowned music professor and University alumnus, passed away Thursday evening from congestive heart failure. Mead, a graduate of the class of 1940, was 95.
Mead served as chair of the music department, and in 1972 began leading small seminars to discuss important issues facing the University community, which he continued after his retirement.
University History Officer Alexander Gilliam said Mead was best known for his seminars, in addition to his great musical talent.
“He would select a small group of students and they talked about everything under the sun in the seminars,” Gilliam said. “He was famous for that and the students who took his seminars developed a great affection for him.”
Thomas Howard, secretary of the Raven Society and Curry graduate student, said Mead took his responsibilities to students outside the classroom seriously as well, becoming both their friend and mentor.
“Mr. Mead … had a unique ability to draw out the best in every student he met, taking his teaching well beyond just the material presented in class, but improving students in every way possible, helping them cultivate intellect and excel in everything they were interested in,” Howard said in an email.
Mead’s daughter, Jenny Mead, said many of her father’s students were so fond of their professor that they remained in contact with him for years after graduating.
“He really cared about people and was devoted to his students,” Jenny said. “He was determined that they would be challenged intellectually and perhaps emotionally. … He has students in touch all over the world who came back to see him when he was sick. This is a true testament to what a special person he was.”
Several years ago, a group of Mead’s former students started a fund called the Mead Endowment. The fund provides money to a dozen professors each year, allowing them to take students on outings in order to foster professor-student relationships, a value that Mead treasured greatly. Since it was started in 2002, more than 100 faculty members participated.
“The Mead Endowment was formed in his honor, to fund innovative projects that promote interactions between faculty and students,” said Keith Williams, a visiting electrical and computer engineering professor and close friend of Mead’s, in an email. “The Endowment has raised more than $1 [million], most from alumni friends of Mr. Mead. It might just be the single most dedicated alumni group at UVa.”
Williams said Mead lead by example and formed deep bonds with students.
“In some ways, Mr. Mead was rather like a father figure to many students, advising and counseling them long after they graduated,” Williams said in an email. “You could see how adept he was at forming real relationships at the annual Mead Endowment dinners, which brought together alumni who had graduated many decades ago and were still in contact with Mr. Mead.”
In addition to being a professor and mentor to students, Mead was also an honorary member of the Jefferson Society and a longtime member of the Raven Society.
“Mr. Mead was a constant force and presence in the University community, and a beloved professor,” Howard said in an email. “He retired in 1996 but continued to be active in the University community.”
Mead inspired and touched many people, including former student and lifelong friend Jonathan Blank.
“He was the greatest listener,” Blank said. “He taught me to search out the truth, whatever that may be.”
Jenny said she, too, was inspired by her father and his relationships.
“I’ve been inspired by his deep compassion for others and by the life he has lead, which has been so rich in relationships and love,” she said.
Mead’s memory will live on in the hearts of everyone he knew, Blank said.
“His legacy will be the fostering of professor-student interaction and the search for the truth by both professors and students,” Blank said. “The University has lost a true treasure.”