Zacharias remembered as 'transformative' presence

March 4, 2013 10:25:30 AM

Carl Smith - [email protected]


Former Mississippi State University President Donald Zacharias, 77, died Sunday of complications from multiple sclerosis after an extended illness. 


Zacharias, the second-longest serving MSU president, led the university from 1985-1997. 


Funeral arrangements have not been announced, but a public memorial service is tentatively scheduled Thursday at MSU. The university has yet to release a time or place for the service. 


Zacharias was born in Salem, Ind. in 1935. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Tommie Kline Zacharias; three children, Eric, Leslie and Alan; and three grandchildren. Zacharias is also survived by his sister, Mary Catherine Zacharias Collier. 


"I saw things in Mississippi State University that others might not have seen. I felt that I had made the right decision to be at this university because I liked both what it stood for and its overall character. I liked its mission, and I liked the students and alumni. I saw the potential," Zacharias said upon his resignation in 1997. 


MSU President Mark Keenum called Zacharias one of the most influential leaders in the history of Mississippi higher education. Keenum said Zacharias continued to provide insight for the university through his final months.  


"Dr. Donald Zacharias was a transformative figure at Mississippi State University. He really helped bring MSU into the modern era, and he did so by developing a broad vision for the leadership that Mississippi needed from a land grant university," Keenum said in a release Sunday. 


"I counted him as a friend, a mentor and an inspiration," he added. 


Maridith Geuder, Mississippi University for Women's executive director of university relations, said Zacharias was one of the state's strongest advocates for higher education. Geuder worked at MSU from 1990-2012. 


While leading a large university, Geuder said Zacharias still made time to personally reach out and encourage faculty, staff and students. 


"He was the supreme communicator, and he wanted MSU to shine and thrive. Dr. Zacharias did everything in his power to do that," she said. "As president and president emeritus, he always found time to speak and encourage, and he did that for me, personally, and everyone he met." 


The former president also had a sharp eye for talent, Geuder said. Before author John Grisham became a household name, she said Zacharias recognized his talent and supported the blossoming author. 


Numerous MSU officials also expressed their respect for Zacharias through social media platforms Sunday. 


MSU athletics director Scott Stricklin tweeted Zacharias "was a great leader for Mississippi State" and he was saddened by the university's loss. 


"Don Zacharias was the man who paved the way for many of the successes that Mississippi State enjoys today. A mentor, friend, scholar, and leader," University Relations Director Sid Salter tweeted. 


By late afternoon, almost 200 people had shared the university's announcement through Facebook, while almost 100 left comments wishing his family well and noting Zacharias' character and commitment. 


"Dr. Zacharias was a fine man, and a humble man, who loved Mississippi State," wrote Candy Hood Gordon. "He was one of our best presidents and his wonderful wife, Miss Tommy, was a magnificent First Lady. He will be sorely missed and lovingly remembered." 


Another Facebook commenter, Blane Merritt, said he was proud to have Zacharias' name on his diploma. 


"Give God a cowbell along with a big Hail State," wrote Derrick Myers. 


Under Zacharias' leadership, he raised MSU's visibility and reputation nationally. Enrollment grew to the largest in the state at almost 16,000, and African American enrollment more than doubled to 2,200. 


Annual private contributions rose from approximately $4 million at the beginning of his tenure to more than $42 million in 1996. Zacharias oversaw the university's first major gifts drive - the Campaign for Mississippi State - which raised more than $143 million by the time he left office in 1997. 


The university's endowment also grew to almost $130 million during the Zacharias administration, and external research funding doubled. He oversaw the expansion and renovation to Mitchell Memorial Library and was instrumental in the construction of the student recreation facility known as Joe Frank Sanderson Center. 


Zacharias received a bachelor's degree from Georgetown College (Ky.) in 1957 and a master's (1959) and doctoral (1963) degree from Indiana University. He held an honorary doctorate of law from Georgetown for distinguished contributions to the college. 


Zacharias taught communication at Indiana University and the University of Texas in the 1960s. At Texas, he became executive to the chancellor of the 14-campus system and assistant to the president of the Austin campus. 


Zacharias was named MSU president in 1985 after serving in a similar role for Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. As WKU's leader, he created the first comprehensive development program and raised academic standards during his six-year administration.

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch