More MS news articles for July 2001

Former MSU president still active, involved in education

July 5, 2001
By Mack Spencer
The Commercial Dispatch

STARKVILLE Donald Zacharias has had a low profile over the past four years since he stepped down as president of Mississippi State University.

And that is just fine by him.

"I don't need to be in the limelight," Zacharias said with the modesty that is one of his hallmarks.

"I'm here to be supportive of Dr. (Malcolm) Portera (the current president of MSU), do what I can to lighten any burden and reinforce decisions," Zacharias said.

Zacharias can do much to fulfill all of those duties.

He was president of MSU for 12 years, from 1985 to 1997, before taking emeritus status because of stress and his battle with multiple sclerosis.

In his 12 years at the helm, he presided over both lean times and periods of tremendous growth, and developed friendships and relationships that are still beneficial to the university.

These days, though, Zacharias presides over the John Grisham Room in the Mitchell Memorial Library, the home of Grisham's papers and numerous programs promoting writing, reading and community involvement.

"School children come here to learn about a Mississippi author, and maybe it's inspiration for them. We have lectures and receptions here. I just met with the dean to talk about other uses that might pique interest in writing," he said.

In addition to managing the Grisham Room, Zacharias is back in the classroom teaching an honors course in oral communication.

"My expectations are higher (than for a regular class)," said Zacharias. "I expect stronger quality work, and give additional work.

"I started as a classroom teacher, and I'm back to the start of the profession that gave me fulfillment," he said.

Zacharias still has other roles to play, however.

He chairs the Competitive Scholarship Committee, which selects Presidential and Schillig Scholarship winners.

He sits on the Advisory and Development Council for the College of Arts and Sciences, which raises funds for the college.

He's on call for the university president and the Board of Trustees, if needed.

And he's also working on his memoirs.

"I'm focusing on my administrative process," said Zacharias of his writing effort. "But I wander sometimes into the political arena, and other aspects of the university.

"The first money of any significant level that the university received, in my first year, was the Schillig fund. Watching Schilligs excel is a great privilege," he said.

"Dr. Portera established the Presidential Scholarship this year. Attracting students like the Starkville valedictorian and the Owensboro, Ky., valedictorian are the basis for outstanding programs," he said.

After 12 years steering the university, Zacharias said he had to acclimate to his new, less stressful role.

"I missed it (the presidency) initially," he said. "My whole being was in tune with the process and the demands of the job.

"I missed completing some projects," he said. "I felt a little bit cheated by my health. But I loved this institution enough to step aside and let someone else take over.

"At this point, I don't miss it," he said. "I've found ways to invest my time and energy."

His energy seems quite high for someone battling multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease that is aggravated by stress.

But Zacharias said he followed the advice of his sons, both doctors; and his brother-in-law, recently retired from the Mayo Clinic.

"My sons both told me that there is a direct correlation between the effects of multiple sclerosis and stress," said Zacharias. "It was a role reversal to take my kids' advice, but I was smart enough to realize they were right.

"I've had the best medical care money can buy, and I'm doing great," he said.

"It's amazing what a difference not running a $300 million institution can make," he said with a grin.

Zacharias' apparent health is such, in fact, that many people don't even realize he has the disease.

He told the story of a dinner he attended, and one woman there said that all of the people there could be thankful that they had their health.

"I didn't say anything," said Zacharias. "It seemed to her that I do have my health. And I think that's the way it should be."