University family celebrates Zacharias' life


MSU President Mark E. Keenum called late MSU President Donald Zacharias the university's "most fervent and committed proponent" during a Thursday memorial service, where more than 300 paid their respects to the institution's 15th leader. PHOTO: Russ Houston | University Relations

Hundreds of Mississippi State faculty, staff, alumni, students and friends attended a memorial service last Thursday for the university's President Emeritus Donald Zacharias, who died March 3 after an extended illness and complications from multiple sclerosis.

The service was a celebration of not only his legacy of accomplishments, but also of his revered character, one described as humble and loving, but effective and willing to fight for causes he thought were important.

Zacharias etched his place in MSU history during his 12-and-one-half-year presidency, which is second in tenure only to the university's founding president, General Stephen Dill Lee.

"General Lee prepared this institution for the challenges and the opportunities of that dawning 20th century. When President Zacharias stepped down, he had well positioned Mississippi State University for the 21st century," said MSU President Mark E. Keenum.

Keenum recalled his own years as a doctoral student in the university's agricultural economics department when Zacharias became MSU's 15th president after leaving a successful presidency at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green.

"Donald Wayne Zacharias immersed himself immediately in the life of this campus and this state and became, from day one, the most fervent and committed proponent of what was now his university," Keenum said.

The university's 19th president said Zacharias had a direct influence on his own career, and encouraged Keenum to take a position on the staff of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran upon finishing his advanced studies at MSU.

"His confidence and guidance made all the difference in my life and my career, and I will be forever grateful to Dr. Zacharias," Keenum said. He added that during his tenure on Sen. Cochran's staff, he developed a close working relationship with Zacharias, and together they worked on a model to increase levels of federally directed funding for state universities.

Acclaimed author and MSU alumnus John Grisham also was part of the program. While Zacharias's tenure as president began after Grisham graduated from MSU in 1977 and finished law school at Ole Miss, he got to know the future author when he was a rookie member of the Mississippi House of Representatives. He said Zacharias would visit the legislature in search of funding for the university.

Grisham lightened the mood by telling how Zacharias had seemed at times the only one interested in speaking with him when his political influence was limited and he had only begun to compose his first novel.

"When he came to town, we'd go out and have long dinners. We wouldn't talk about politics. We'd talk about important things like college baseball, higher ed history, and books."

Grisham said occasionally a university president comes at the right place and the right time and leaves a profound impact on his institution.

"As long as this place is here, 'Dr. Z' will be remembered, and cherished, not only as a great leader, but also as a great person," Grisham said.

Longtime MSU administrator and former interim president Roy H. Ruby said Zacharias had a broad knowledge of higher education and a vision.

"When he came here, he had a vision of where he wanted to take Mississippi State, and with that vision and his leadership, he impacted all areas of the campus," Ruby said. Ruby is the namesake of one of the residence halls that now makes up Zacharias Village, a residence hall complex.

"He was a great college president because he loved and respected people, so he connected with people," Ruby said. "But perhaps more important than his accomplishments as a college president was the kind of man he was," he added.

Jimmy Abraham, executive director of the MSU Alumni Association, said Zacharias was a master communicator who used his many talents to share stories about the great things happening at the university, always giving credit to others.

He recalled Zacharias reading a letter from a parent at a general faculty meeting who praised a professor who had gone above and beyond the call of duty to help his son. Abraham said, "After reading the letter, Dr. Zacharias paused, looked up, and said, and I quote, 'This is a great reminder to all of us that nothing is routine when dealing with the lives of other people.'

"Vintage Dr. Zacharias--nothing was ever routine to him when dealing with the lives of others. He was committed to helping everyone as much as he could. Nothing pleased him more than to see others succeed," Abraham said.

"As great a president as he was--and he was a great president--he was an even better person," Abraham said. "His footprints will forever be on this campus, and all of us who love Mississippi State will never stop building on the foundation he helped lay."

Zacharias's son Eric Zacharias gave a response on behalf of the family and noted the many fond memories he and his brother, Alan, and sister, Leslie, have of their parents and their father's long distinguished career as a professor and university president.

"What's it like to have a father or husband who becomes a university president? We're unanimous as a family: it was great, and it was mostly great because of all the wonderful people who brought us into their world and welcomed us and embraced us," Zacharias said.

"Dad loved working here. He loved it. We loved being here."

Among the university dignitaries who gathered for the service were former MSU president Malcolm Portera and former interim president Vance Watson. Zacharias's contemporaries as Mississippi higher education leaders also were in attendance, including former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat, and former University of Southern Mississippi President Aubrey Lucas, who also is his institution's interim president. Former MSU head football coach Jackie Sherrill also attended.

The Zacharias family will additionally memorialize their husband, father and grandfather with a private service at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection.

Allison Matthews | University Relations

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