WASHINGTON — Jaylee Mead, a NASA astronomer who married into a paper manufacturing fortune and with her husband, Gilbert, helped transform Washington’s cultural scene by donating more than $50 million to local theaters, died Sept. 14 at her home in Washington. She was 83.
Her death, from congestive heart failure, was confirmed by her sister Mary Watts.
For decades, Gilbert and Dr. Mead lived in Greenbelt, Md., and worked in relative obscurity at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, he a geophysicist and she an astronomer. Gilbert was an heir to the riches of Consolidated Papers in Wisconsin, one of the largest papermakers in North America.
The scientists met through an amateur Broadway troupe for Goddard employees, found a kinship in their love of the theater, and married in 1968. In the late 1980s, after years of quiet patronage of local playhouses, the Meads established themselves as two of the most generous arts philanthropists in the capital.
‘‘It’s just like in ‘Hello, Dolly!’, ’’ Jaylee Mead once told The Washington Post. ‘‘Money should be spread around, like manure. Dolly Levi says that, and I really believe it.’’
Gilbert Mead died in 2007, three years before the opening of the couple’s most dramatic project: the fully renovated Arena Stage in Washington, 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 complex includes working space for artists and has been cited as a key element of nearby urban revitalization efforts. Other beneficiaries of the Meads’ largesse include the 200-seat Mead Theatre at the Studio Theatre, which specializes in contemporary works, and the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, which offers free daily concerts for tourists and Washingtonians.
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 first became involved with theater in Washington in the 1960s, Dr. Mead once noted in an interview, many actors had to go to New York City to find work.
‘‘Our hope was to keep them here,’’ she said.
Barbara Jaylee Montague was born 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.
Dr. Mead worked at Goddard for 33 years as a mathematician and astronomer, retiring in 1992. She helped create a computerized database of stars and galaxies, a tool used to identify new celestial bodies.