Zacharias cast long shadow

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In life and in death, Donald W. Zacharias cast a long shadow over Mississippi State University — the school he successfully led from 1985 to 1997 — the second longest tenure in the history of the university behind founding president Stephen D. Lee. Higher education in Mississippi has had few better friends.

Long and lanky, and possessed of a lilting voice that served him well during his college days as a radio basketball announcer and disc jockey, Zacharias sought to preserve and grow MSU’s land-grant mission while expanding the school’s boundaries in the arts and sciences. He led MSU through difficult financial times, past old technologies, and into the early years of its current status as a comprehensive research university.

History recognizes that Zacharias was responsible for what was in his era unprecedented growth in MSU’s enrollment, endowments and the quality of the university’s Mitchell Memorial Library. Additionally, the Salem, Ind., native was also a champion of gender equality, meaningful racial reconciliation, and the raising of university academic standards.

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He was also a man whose personal grace, humility, and concern for his fellow man made him a dynamic leader of students, faculty and staff alike.

Never was Zacharias’ character tested as it was when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the 1990s. Because of my family’s experience with the disease — like Don, my late wife Paula died of complications of multiple sclerosis after a lengthy battle in 2005 — he confided in me about his diagnosis long before it become public knowledge.

The day he confided that sad fact to me was March 22, 1996. We were in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., in Section 13, Row “R” in seats 9 and 10. State had just beaten Connecticut  60-55 to advance to the NCAA Southeast Regional title game two days later against Cincinnati — which MSU would also win on the way to a Final Four appearance.

Like all of the Bulldog Nation, to suggest we were happy that afternoon was an understatement. Giddy and euphoric were all good terms to describe the feeling. As we got up to leave and trudge up the arena steps, I felt him take hold of my shoulder.

There was a momentary unsteadiness in his gait, a few seconds of obvious imbalance. He said: “If you don’t mind, I’m going to hold onto your shoulder while we get up these stairs. You just keep walking and we’ll get there together, okay?”

At the top of the stairs, he told me what deep down I’d already perceived. Years of steadying my wife’s climb up stairs — feeling that peculiar imbalance — was telltale.

He had already been treated by the same Jackson neurologist who had cared for Paula. Don said he knew that he would have to give up the presidency sooner than he had planned, but that he had projects he wanted to finish — and at the detriment of his health, he indeed finished those projects.

Two days later, we were back in our seats at Rupp. State upset Cincinnati to punch their ticket to the Final Four. Before I could rise to help him, Don instinctively made his way down to the court to join in the wild celebration.

When he made it to the floor, with MSU players, coaches and fans around him in a moment of pure joy, he looked up at me, raised his fist in the air and shook it triumphantly. Then he wrapped his arms around one of the Bulldog players.

That moment is how I choose to remember Don Zacharias — who was triumphant in the face of the elegantly tedious decay of a disease that ultimately takes all but one’s intellect and who embraced the people of Mississippi State University as his own.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or