By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Dr. Donald Zacharias likely is ringing his Mississippi State cowbell in heaven, showing everyone how to do it properly.
“It’s all in the wrist,” said Dr. Jimmy Abraham, MSU Alumni Association executive director, quoting his former boss during a memorial service Thursday for the university president emeritus.
Dr. Mark Keenum, MSU’s current president, told the large crowd on campus, that his predecessor once repeated biblical advice he was given about being a successful university president.
“’You had to have the patience of Job, the courage of David, the wisdom of Solomon and the stomach of a billy goat,’” Keenum said Zacharias told him.
In Zacharias’ 12 1/2 years at MSU’s helm, his remarkable vision and leadership abilities “well positioned Mississippi State for the 21st Century,” Keenum said to the hundreds who gathered to remember the man many affectionately called “Doctor Z.”
Zacharias, 77, died March 3 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
The Indiana native was MSU’s 15th president and its longest tenured president – 1985-1997 – since its founding president, Gen. Stephen D. Lee.
Among those in the audience were former Ole Miss chancellor Robert C. Khayat, former Delta State and USM president Dr. Aubrey Lucas, former MSU head football coach Jackie Sherrill and current and former trustees of Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.
During the 80-minute program, speaker after speaker told stories of how Zacharias impacted their lives and MSU’s ascent to academic and athletic achievement.
Famed author John Grisham, a 1977 graduate, said he came to know Zacharias while Grisham was a cloutless, ignored and bored member of the Mississippi Legislature who began fiction writing to amuse himself.
He credited Zacharias with organizing his most successful book tour stop in 1989 with the publication of “A Time to Kill.”
After that book-signing, Zacharias and librarian Dr. Frances Coleman convinced the writer to begin donating all his papers to MSU, then to be involved with a Grisham Room in the new university library.
Starkville banker and community leader Lewis Mallory termed Zacharias intellectual, courageous, dignified, a good friend, persistent, a hard worker and a fighter.
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer, if he believed in it,” Mallory noted.
He credited Zacharias with leading MSU’s first successful, modern-day capital campaign, which brought in more than $150 million.
But the most personal, emotional words came from Dr. Eric Zacharias, a Colorado internal medicine specialist, who spoke at length about his father and their family lives intertwined with the rise of his academic career coming to MSU from the presidency at Western Kentucky University.
“Dad loved working here. We loved being here,” he said. “Thank you for letting us into your Mississippi State world.”
Speaking at the funeral of MSU Vice President Ralph Powe years ago, Zacharias recalled the epitaph for British architect Sir Christopher Wren in the center of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
“If you seek his monument, look around,” Zacharias recounted the chiseled words, Keenum told the assembled admirers Thursday.
“Look around this campus,” Keenum noted. “They apply to his own impact here.”
What they said about Zacharias:
• Dr. Mark Keenum, MSU president – “I am confident that Dr. Zacharias made all the difference in my life and in my career. I will be forever grateful to him.”
While he was chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Keenum credited his partnership with Zacharias for creating “a model” for direct, increased federal funding to Mississippi universities.
Zacharias even talked Keenum into accepting the job with Cochran.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Mark, this won’t only be good for you but for Mississippi State,’” Keenum told the crowd. “What do you do? I went home, told (his wife) Rhonda ‘we’re moving to Washington.’ We gave away our cat, packed the UHaul and were gone for 20 years.”
• John Grisham, famed author – “Occasionally, a university president will show up at the right time and leave a profound impact. He rallies the school and takes it off on a bold, new direction. As long as this place is here, he will be cherished as a great leader and as a great person.”
• Dr. Roy Ruby, former interim president – “Dr. Zacharias said, ‘I will lead you, follow me.’ He gave people new and better reasons to support Mississippi State. He was great because he loved and respected people.”
• Dr. Jimmy Abraham, executive director, MSU Alumni Association – He credited Dr. Zacharias with creation of MSU’s first major academic scholarships and building competitive programs for academically talented students.
After reading a thank-you letter from a student’s parent, he said, Zacharias told him, “Nothing is routine when dealing with the lives of other people.”