By Sid Salter
The memorial service for the late MSU President Donald W. Zacharias was an emotional, meaningful day for those who bleed maroon. Much has been said and much has been written about Dr. Z’s contributions not merely to Mississippi State University, but to higher education in general in Mississippi.
But when the day was done, my thoughts centered on the presence of two people among the mourners who are decidedly not members of the Bulldog Nation. I thought about the presence of former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat and current interim University of Southern Mississippi President Aubrey K. Lucas, both of whom served during the Zacharias era at MSU.
The presence of MSU alumnus and renowned author John Grisham was a comfort to the Zacharias family and the humor and warmth he brought to the proceedings were sorely needed. Yet I can think of few people who attended the memorial service whose presence would have pleased Dr. Z more than that of Khayat and Lucas.
Outside the memorial service, Khayat and Lucas met in a warm embrace amid smiles and quiet laughter. Both spoke to me of their admiration of Don Zacharias and the respect they had for his quiet but effective advocacy for Mississippi higher education.
“The usually healthy competition between the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State didn’t affect our friendship one bit,” said Khayat, who journeyed to Starkville to represent Ole Miss at the funeral. “He was a giant in the history of Mississippi higher education and a really genuine person.”
Lucas echoed those comments, recalling struggles for funding that he and Zacharias weathered together.
I have a hard time reading the sports message boards, where the rivalries between State and Ole Miss and to a somewhat lesser degree, State and USM, reach significant depths of rude and insulting behavior. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the rivalries – nobody enjoyed State’s recent upset of Ole Miss in basketball more that this old ‘Dog.
But Zacharias, Khayat and Lucas – and I think that the same is true for the current crop of higher education leadership in Mississippi – understood that Mississippi has too many miles to go in educating our populace and equipping them to embrace economic opportunity to take the sports rivalries too seriously.
It made me really proud to see Khayat and Lucas join in the memorial service for Zacharias. Zacharias’ death came just days after a medical breakthrough in AIDS research at the University of Mississippi Medical Center that could have global ramifications and weeks after a tornado slammed USM’s campus and left a multi-million dollar wake of destruction.
Higher education and the research conducted on the campuses of Mississippi’s eight universities are the ladders that Mississippians must utilize to climb out of poverty, insularity and poor health. The sports rivalries are fun and provide needed diversions. But so much serious work remains to be done.
A few weeks back, current MSU President Mark Keenum and Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones unveiled a new joint program called the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program, one designed to raise the prestige of the teaching profession in Mississippi high schools and middle schools by creating a virtual honors college in the field of education at both schools. On days like that, and sad days like Dr. Z’s homecoming, Mississippians rather easily rediscover their brotherhood.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist.Contact him at (601)507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.