PRINCE/The 'freshman' Zacharias
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 12:00 AM
A lasting memory I'll have of former Mississippi State University President Donald W. Zacharias comes from a visit back to my undergraduate alma mater in the fall of 2005 to guest lecture at the Honors Forum.
I made a passing inquiry about Dr. Zacharias to my host, Nancy McCarley, then director of the University Honors Program. And before long, I was being whisked out to the Zacharias home.
Retired almost a decade, his body was frail from the ravages of multiple sclerosis, but his mind was still sharp. He and I sipped tea on their patio. I listened a lot that gorgeous fall afternoon.
Dr. Zacharias said he'd been keeping up with me in the news and offered encouragement, as he so often had.
In February 2004, he'd written this: "I like the idea of giving people a new life through what they can learn to do with their lives. You must feel this in your work in presenting the news. You enrich peoples' lives by giving them information and insights. How they use it is up to them."
On the afternoon I visited, in stark contrast to the hard-charging university president with whom I'd had "disagreements" as the campus newspaper editor, Dr. Zacharias was eager to talk about all the many different species of birds that inhabited their backyard.
He also talked passionately about prospective students and what he/we could do to further higher education in Mississippi overall.
He'd written a couple of essays for our newspapers in 2004 on higher education. He said then:
"All the major research reports tell us that higher education will suffer inadequate funding in the next decade. We, along with some other states, seem to have our heads buried in the sand. I guess we are wishers and dreamers and expect things to get better without our having to do anything. Dream on."
The week I was there he and his wife Tommie were hosting an event for Schilling Scholars in their home.
Schilling Scholars must have a minimum ACT composite score of 29, exceptionally high grades, and evidence of leadership ability. It was a program Zacharias thrived on immensely.
I saw him at a basketball game once and he was quick to mention the excellent crop of Schilling Scholars that year.
He'd also written to me in 2004: "I just have a dedication to students and learning that I know can exist here if our state leadership will capture the vision and help our campuses to become stronger. There are days when I think a truck load of deer hunters has more influence than all the university presidents combined." And he added, "Nothing wrong with hunting but the objectives are so different from educating."
Zacharias was the 15th president of the university and died Saturday night of complications from multiple sclerosis. He was 77.
He was president from 1985 to 1997 and only founding president Stephen D. Lee served longer, the university said.
I edited The Reflector from 1985 to 1987 and witnessed the powerful, commanding, transformative yet gentle personality he was.
The now late U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis was emerging from a meeting with Zacharias on Aug. 22, 1985, when I arrived for a scheduled interview with the new president.
In that Reflector interview, Zacharias pronounced himself a "freshman," saying he was a builder who liked challenges. He pledged to meet with students, faculty and administrators to absorb everything he could about the university before making major decisions.
Under the headline "Welcome, Dr. Zacharias!" our lead editorial in the Aug. 26 issue said, "He is a good communicator, one who seems to genuinely care about students' needs, their education and their future."
So many have testified to those qualities this week.
"Donald Zacharias was a transformative figure at Mississippi State University," university President Mark E. Keenum said this week. "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. At our last visit during the Christmas holidays, Dr. Zacharias was still providing valuable, thoughtful counsel to me and still had the welfare of MSU students at the top of his mind."
The Reflector's Judy McCulloch wrote in that 1985 issue that Zacharias liked fishing and camping. He relayed a story about a hiking trip to Canada with one of his sons and his wife where they were sleeping in a tent along the Granite River and a bear got into their food.
He mentioned his love of photography and music and told about an old electric organ he liked to play. Except for current rock songs, he said, he could play just about anything. But, he quipped, "Sorry, I'm not available for concerts."
Zacharias expressed an interest in teaching and eventually did, but he recognized any criticism he offered had to be more gentle than the average professor.
He was a campus newspaper editor in his day as well, worked as a disc jockey in Kentucky and Indiana, but told The Reflector he thought he could be more fulfilled in the communications field in teaching or administration - and gifted he was.
"There are always new challenges in the teaching profession and in administration. I was drawn to teaching in this way," he told The Reflector in 1985.
My calling to my profession became clear during my Reflector years and, providentially, Don Zacharias played a role in who I am today, as surely as my parents and others like Stanley Dearman.
I'm privileged to have been an object of Dr. Zacharias' genuine affection and concern.
One Christmas I believe I was the last student on campus - as often is the case with student newspaper editors - and was on the elevator in Allen Hall and bumped into Dr. Zacharias going down. After asking why I wasn't already on the road home to Philadelphia, he turned to say, "Tell your parents Merry Christmas."
Jim Prince is editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat.