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A Life: Emily ‘Amie’ Mead, 1927-2016; ‘She Was a Doer. She Had a Presence’

  • Emily Mead in her office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she worked after graduating from Barnard College in 1948. (Family photograph)

  • Emily Mead shaking hands with First Lady Barbara Bush, on May 10, 1990, when she was serving as a White House staffer in the Office of Domestic Policy. (White House photograph)

  • Emily Mead with her grandsons, Edgar, left, and Emerson, during a visit to Scotland in 2001. (Family photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2017

Etna — Although the world lost Emily Mead in August, the philanthropist, conservative political organizer and longtime Etna resident lives on, in a way, through her daughter — specifically, through the lovingly honed impersonation that Mary Mead does of her mother.

Mary begins with a furrowed brow and makes her way down, widening the eyes, setting the mouth in a frown and the head awobble. One receives an impression of righteous incredulity.

“What,” Mary says, with comical emphasis, “could they be thinking?”

That was Mead’s reaction, in her old age, to her peers’ leaving their homes for assisted living facilities. But it just as well could have been her response to a misguided public-policy idea, a baffling story in the news or misbehavior from one of her children.

A veteran of the White House, state politics, charitable boards and innumerable fundraisers, Emily Mead was a fierce advocate for her beliefs, a person who pushed others to do what she knew was right.

She worked for George H.W. Bush during his first and only term as president, and afterward co-founded the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, New Hampshire’s first think tank, which promoted free-market ideas.

Mead died at 89 on Aug. 5, 2016, following a brief period of declining health.

She was born on March 27, 1927, in Des Moines, Iowa, to Emily Prouty and Donald McMurray. She spent much of her youth in New York City — a “New Yorker at heart,” Mary called her — and later in New Canaan, Conn., with her mother and her stepfather, Malcolm A. Sedgwick.

Emily, who among friends went by “Amie” (pronounced AH-me), returned to New York to attend Barnard College and fostered a lifelong interest in politics while majoring in government and history.

In 1948, at about 21 years old, she volunteered for the presidential campaign of Thomas Dewey.

She was one of a handful of people in the room with Dewey, a Republican favored to defeat incumbent Democrat Harry Truman, when he learned on Election Day that he had, in fact, lost.

An early job out of college was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, at the time, suffered from low attendance — an issue she was put in charge of correcting.

Not long afterward, in 1953, she met her future husband, Edgar Mead, a Wall Street broker, at a Christmas party.

Emily was tall — 5’10’’ — and projected confidence. Even later in life, Mary recalled, “she was kind of formidable to my friends. She was a doer. She had a presence.”

Not long after that party, she sprained an ankle in a skiing accident and found herself stranded in Vermont. Edgar went up to pursue her.

They were married in the spring of 1953 and had a son, Edgar T. “Thorn” Mead III, in 1955.

Thorn died of melanoma in 2008, and Edgar passed away in 2001. Edgar and Mary have another son, Malcolm, who lives in New Jersey.

In New York City, Mead honed the skills that would later make her an influence nationally and, even later, in New Hampshire.

She served on the YMCA’s board of directors and helped to force integration of the city’s public pools. She helped grow a small church nursery school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side into what is now the elite Trevor Day School. She joined the Carnegie Hill Association and as a director there found a place for the Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe to rehearse.

As a member of the United Nations hospitality committee, she brought diplomats and their families to her home on Fifth Avenue, forming friendships that would last a lifetime; later, in Washington, D.C., she would attend many a party at the British Embassy, hosted by an ambassador she had befriended in the Big Apple.

She also kept up her interest in politics, working on John Lindsay’s 1965 run for mayor and earned an appointment from New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Dartmouth College graduate, to the Board of Visitors of the Manhattan State Hospital.

But only a few years after Lindsay’s victory, Edgar’s career took them away from New York.

An avid train enthusiast and author, Edgar agreed to take a position as curator of the Steamtown, U.S.A. locomotive museum in Bellows Falls, Vt. The family relocated to Hanover.

“I look back now and I think she really must have loved my father,” Mary Mead, now an artist living in Warner, N.H., said of the move to the rural Upper Valley. “Or else she would never have done it.”

Mead threw herself into charity work and community organizing. She became the first president of the Friends of the Hopkins Center, where, a colleague once told her daughter, she “changed the way fundraising was done in Hanover.” She brought such G.O.P. figures as Judd Gregg, the late governor and U.S. senator for New Hampshire, to events at her Etna home.

And, as demographic changes in Hanover made the Democratic Party preeminent in town, she and Edgar became known as eminences grises of the Republican old guard. Each of them mounted unsuccessful campaigns for state representative during an era when conservatives mostly had given up on winning seats in the college town.

“Obviously she wasn’t thrilled about the Democrats taking over everything,” said David Cioffi, an Etna neighbor and fellow Republican, “and every now and then she would tell me, ‘We’ve got to organize,’ and I would say, ‘There isn’t really anyone to organize anymore.’

“She, right up to the last year, was saying, ‘We’ve got to have some meetings and get things going again.’ She saw what was happening in Hanover, and she tried to bring it back, but it wasn’t going to happen and I’m not sure it ever will again.”

In 1986, Mead’s political aspirations took her to Washington, D.C., where she worked on George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. (Edgar had grown up in Greenwich, Conn., where his ancestors were early settlers in the 1600s, and knew the Bush family).

Bush, when he won the 1988 election, invited her to join the White House Office of Domestic Policy.

After Bush lost his 1992 re-election bid, Mary Mead happened to attend a talk at the Heritage Foundation, where a speaker exhorted disillusioned conservatives, “If you want to have an effect, you need to leave Washington now.”

She told her mother about the talk, and Emily Mead took heed. She and Edgar returned to New Hampshire with the idea of opening the state’s first policy think tank, which they named after Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and New Hampshire’s fourth governor.

In 1993, Mary recalled, when state senators and representatives considered a potential policy, “they had no resources outside the Legislature except lobbyists.”

Mead and her daughter made the rounds in Concord, calling on conservative heavyweights for support and donations. Mary still remembers their visit to Robert Bass, a co-founder of the law firm Cleveland, Waters & Bass who served as chair of the state Republican Party.

“He treated us like schoolgirls,” Mary said of Bass, the son of a governor and brother of a congressman, but he gave money.

Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Bartlett Center since 2003, says Mead was closely involved in the organization’s activities, though she focused her efforts more on building its strength than on any one issue.

Behind the scenes, Mary Mead said, her mother kept an eye on national politics. She often expressed concern about the power of interest groups like the National Education Association, the influential teachers union.

Over the years, as the Bartlett Center became more involved in important statewide issues, it also attracted the ire of progressives and interest groups across the aisle.

In the 2011-12 legislative session, members of Granite State Progress, among others on the left wing and in the Democratic Party, accused the think tank of pushing a bill written by out-of-state interests.

The legislation, a school-voucher program that would have diverted public funds to private and religious schools, resembled materials from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a nationwide nonprofit receiving Koch funding that distributes model legislation for state-level implementation, often from a conservative or free-market viewpoint.

At the time, Arlinghaus denied any connection to ALEC.

And despite the attempts to portray her group as an implement of corporate interests, rather than a source of information and analysis in its own right, Mead was not fazed either, he said.

“I think that she, like the rest of us, regarded scurrilous attacks as something to be pitied rather than to be worried about,” Arlinghaus said. “I think that we all just found it amusing.”

Arlinghaus said Mead wanted to help New Hampshire move away from personality politics and make decisions based on information.

“It was about ideas,” he said. “Her vision was that too much of the public debate is about personalities. Not enough of the debate is about data, ideas, and changing the world that way. Information is critically valuable, and there was a thought that a ton of information would circulate nationally and not so much locally.”

Later in life, Mead joined a group of old-timers who met regularly to chat and sip coffee at the Dartmouth Bookstore.

Cioffi, who owned the establishment while it was still independent, remembers that she, being initially the only woman in the group of aging patriarchs, still dominated the conversation.

“You could hear Amie leading the band over there,” he said.

During one of her last get-togethers, sometime in the summer of 2016, the conversation turned, as it so often did, to politics.

Another woman who had joined the group was extolling the virtues of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist who mounted a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries.

Colin Campbell, a professor of economics at Dartmouth and a longtime conservative friend of Mead’s — he recently passed away — was in disbelief.

“You’re saying you want me to give more money that I’ve earned to the government?” he said.

And, of course, the group addressed Donald Trump. Mead, a woman who had harbored distaste for Ronald Reagan, could not understand the brash billionaire’s appeal to the party she had known, loved and supported all her life.

The man, to put it simply, was “not dignified,” she told her daughter later.

Emily Mead used the telephone the way one might call out to a family member in another room. She picked up the receiver, dialed her daughter and began speaking without so much as a “hello,” as if resuming an interrupted conversation.

Mary has saved many of the abrupt, train-of-thought voicemails that her mother left in her final years.

One, from last summer, not long before Emily Mead died, got straight to the point.

“Mary, dear, are you paying any attention to this Trump?” she said. “It’s crazy!”

Click.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.