Donald W. Zacharias, whose 12-year tenure as Mississippi State University’s president was second longest in the institution’s history, died Sunday at age 77 of complications from multiple sclerosis at a Starkville nursing facility.
MSU University Relations announced the death. Funeral arrangements were incomplete at press time. A public memorial service is tentatively planned for Thursday but a time and location has not been finalized.
Zacharias was MSU’s 15th president, serving from 1985-97. Under his tenure, the university completed its first capital campaign, raising $143 million in private gifts and commitments by the time he left office. Funds raised during his administration were used for several campus building projects, including expansion of the Mitchell Memorial Library and construction of the Joe Frank Sanderson Center, a recreational facility.
External funding also saw significant growth — reaching $80 million in one year during his term — and the university’s endowment grew to $130 million at the time of his departure.
Student enrollment also grew while he was at the helm, eventually eclipsing 15,000 for the first time and nearly reaching 16,000 when he left.
The creation of Mississippi’s first world wide website was established under his watch, as well.
He served on several committees, including the Commission on Colleges arm of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
He announced in March 1997 that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and would resign by the end of the year.
Zacharias continued to serve the university after his resignation. He was coordinator of MSU’s Presidential scholarship program and mentor for the Ottlie Schillig Leadership scholars. He also served as the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning professor.
In 2008, MSU opened a state-of-the-art dormitory community containing four residence halls on the north side of campus and named it Zacharias Village in the former president’s honor.
Zacharias came to MSU from Western Kentucky University, where he served as president from 1979-85. He began his career in higher education at Indiana University in 1963, where he earned a master’s degree in 1957 and a doctorate degree in communication in 1959. He joined the University of Texas communication department in 1969 and later served in administrative roles there before he left for WKU.
Roy Ruby, dean emeritus of the MSU College of Education and former MSU interim president, worked for Zacharias as vice president for student affairs and said the university as a whole rose in stature as a result of his work.
“Donald Zacharias was a great president for Mississippi State and a good man to work for as a vice president. He was fair minded about everything and supportive, but would hold you to account for all aspects of the institution you managed,” Ruby said. “He was a highly knowledgeable individual and a good boss. He developed a camaraderie amongst all his executive staff, and we all had a great admiration for him and a dedication to get the job done for the university.”
MSU President Mark Keenum said in a press release that Zacharias’ work helped bring the university to an unprecedented level of prominence.
“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. “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. I counted him as a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration. Don Zacharias was a man of great courage and dignity — and he was one of the most influential leaders in the history of Mississippi higher education.”
Nel Slaughter, who was one of two secretaries for Zacharias, described him as the hardest working person she ever knew. She said she enjoyed working with him.
“He was a wonderful communicator and had a wonderful sense of humor. He was kind to people and understood people from every walk of life,” Slaughter said. “Working with him was exciting and fun. There was something new every day, (and) the office was a busy place. He had such a wonderful personality and was able to work with people and make them love the university like he did and get them to support it.”
Slaughter said she and her husband were also family friends of Zacharias and his wife of 53 years, Tommie Kline Zacharias. After he resigned, Slaughter said Zacharias attended Starkville Rotary Club meetings with her husband.
“My husband said (Sunday) morning that he lost his brother,” she said. “They were very close and loved each other.”
Zacharias is survived by his wife and three adult children, Eric, Leslie and Alan, and three grandchildren, all of Boulder, Colo. He is also survived by a sister, Mary Catherine Zacharias Collier of Yucaipa, Calif.