Philanthropist backed theaters including the Kennedy Center

Jaylee Mead, a prominent Washington, D.C. arts philanthropist who, with her late husband Gilbert, generously supported professional theaters and other arts organizations throughout the D.C. area, died Sept. 14 of heart failure. She was 83.

Longtime benefactors to regional theaters including the Kennedy Center and Studio Theater, the Meads made a profound impact on the productions, endowments and roof lines of arts organizations throughout the region. Their largesse helped spawn D.C. area’s vibrant theater scene while also revitalizing several blighted neighborhoods.

Their gifts included a $35 million grant, the largest private donation ever made to a U.S. theater, to Arena Stage to support the construction of Arena’s new Mead Center for American Theater. Other recipients include Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater, Woolly Mammoth Theater, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the sponsoring organization for the Helen Hayes Awards now known as TheaterWashington.

The famously unpretentious couple were a fixture at opening nights before Gilbert’s death in 2007, with Jaylee carrying on afterward.

One of their early beneficiaries was D.C.’s Studio Theater. The duo quietly left a sizable donation following one performance during the 1970s, recalled the theater’s founding artistic director, Joy Zinoman. A long relationship ensued that included hands-on assistance from the energetic Meads. Whenever a production opened at Studio, odds were good that it was being underwritten by the Meads, possibly along with the entire season.

In 1989, they created the Mead Family Foundation to support organizations working in arts education as well as crisis prevention in children.

Barbara Jaylee Montague was born in Clayton, N.C., near Raleigh. She received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the U. of North Carolina at Greensboro and a master’s in English from Stanford.

She was toiling for the State Dept. in 1959 when she was recruited by NASA to become an astronomer at its Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. She did so, receiving a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown U. By the time she retired in 1992, Jaylee had become known internationally for her work on a computerized database of stars and galaxies.

It was at Goddard that she met Gilbert, a fellow research scientist who was also an heir to Consolidated Papers Inc. They were married in 1968. Jaylee’s interest in the arts was sparked by joining Goddard’s amateur employee theater, where she enjoyed producing and performing while Gilbert often acted as music director.

She is survived by three stepchildren, a sister and five grandchildren.

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