On August 24, 2015, in the University of Virginia Hospital, Margaret Scott Meyer, 92, passed into a realm where she is no doubt enjoying all she said she wanted from the afterlife: “Veuve Cliquot champagne, St. André cheese, and dark chocolate.”
Born in 1923 in Seattle, Washington, she was the daughter of Bert J. Scott, a linotype operator, whose steady wages supported his own family and his wife’s (which lived in the house next door) during the Great Depression. Her mother was Margaret Burbank, herself also a Seattle native; mother and daughter even attended the same high school. Meyer was the middle sister of three, and frequently claimed that while her older sister had all the brains and her younger sister had all the looks, she had all the fun. In those innocent days “all the fun” consisted largely of singing, sewing, and reading novels at a prodigious rate, a habit she kept to the end of her life. During the war she made her own marionettes and put on patriotic puppet shows; she also bicycled to visit her Japanese-American friends in a local internment camp.
Meyer graduated from the University of Washington in 1945 while already working at Frederick and Nelson, the distinguished Seattle department store. After the death of a high-school sweetheart in the last days of World War II she asked for a transfer to Chicago, where her older sister lived and where Meyer would work as a floor manager for Marshall Field’s Department Store, which owned Frederick and Nelson. While employed there she sang in the store’s choir and attended the famous discussions of Great Books instituted by the philosopher Mortimer Adler, commissioned by Marshall Field’s for the intellectual improvement of its staff. At a party on Chicago’s North Side she met a young professor of mathematics, W. Herman L. Meyer, who—the story goes—was compelled to give her a ride home to the South Side, since they were the only guests from that neighborhood (an eventuality apparently intended by their hostess). They were married in 1951, and he predeceased her in 1993.
The University of Chicago’s Department of Mathematics was, in the middle decades of the last century, the most eminent assembly of mathematical talent in the world. Herman Meyer, a little less unworldly than most of his colleagues (although his wife was sometimes heard to say, “You cannot go out of the house dressed like that! You are Margaret Meyer’s husband!”), along with the formidably organized Meyer, formed the department’s hospitable social center. In particular they cheerfully played host to the flotsam and jetsam of Cold War mathematics, who tended to arrive unannounced and stay much longer than expected. In this way the Meyers inadvertently encouraged their two children to tolerate and appreciate a high level of interesting and well-meaning eccentricity in others, a capacity already in formation because of the wealth of quirky older relatives who regularly visited and abided in the household.
After she married, Meyer found employment at the University of Chicago, first as a part-time secretary while her children were small, and then as a personnel analyst in the Human Resources Department, first for the University of Chicago itself, and later for the University Hospital. Her specialty was the accurate classification of jobs for salary purposes according to the work actually performed by their incumbents, never a boring activity for a person with an orderly and exacting mind. Her indomitable sense of duty and talent for organization also carried her calmly through the long years of attending upon infirm loved ones whom fate assigned to her: for a decade she oversaw the care of her husband’s aunt and uncle, who both died in their nineties, a period in which she also came to undertake the care of her husband Herman when he fell victim to Alzheimer’s.
In 2003 Meyer moved to Charlottesville to be near her daughter, and, in accord with her oft-stated principle that “the best is none too good for us,” became a resident of Westminster Canterbury of the Blue Ridge. Here she rapidly acquired a circle of good friends and exercised a benevolent tyranny over her children and helpers, expressing her opinions in only the gentlest of fashions: “I never criticize,” she was wont to say, “I just make observations.” Some odd words she used—“puff” for duvet; “geexer” for kitchen tongs, and by extension “geexed” for anything pinched; “kattigyschwanzwise” for diagonally opposite or kitty-corner—proved infectious, and those who loved her can still be detected by their use of them.
Meyer is survived by her beloved older sister, Roberta Ehrenberg, of Havertown, Pennsylvania; by her son W. K. Scott Meyer, a screenwriter, of Burbank, California, his wife, Suzy Jacobs, and their daughter, Reason Meredith Meyer; by her daughter Elizabeth, the T. Cary Johnson, Jr., Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and Elizabeth’s husband Jon Lendon; by Margaret (“Nini”) Hawthorne, a close friend of the family whom Margaret always called her “foster daughter;” and by nine nieces and nephews and seven grandnieces and grandnephews.
Gifts made in memory of Meyer can be mailed to the WCBR Fellowship Fund, 250 Pantops Mountain Road, Charlottesville, VA 22911.