A former Western Kentucky University president and a mentor of current President Gary Ransdell died Sunday.
Donald W. Zacharias, who left WKU in 1985 to serve as the 15th president of Mississippi State University in Starkville, died at age 77 in Starkville, following complications from multiple sclerosis after an extended illness, according to information on the Mississippi State University website Sunday evening.
Ransdell said he was informed of Zacharias’ death Sunday by former WKU president Thomas Meredith by phone. Meredith lives in Jackson, Miss.
“He was a personal mentor of mine,” Ransdell said Sunday evening of Zacharias. He recalled spending a considerable amount of time with the former WKU president at Hilltopper baseball games hosted by Mississippi State in the spring of 2003 in Starkville. “He was a great educator and a highly respected WKU president,” Ransdell said.
Zacharias succeeded Dero Downing as WKU’s sixth university president Aug. 1, 1979, and was installed April 26, 1980, according to WKU archives. He served as president until his resignation in 1985.
In remarks to WKU faculty and students on April 6, 1979, prior to being named president, Zacharias said, “The president at a state institution must operate in a partnership with the campus and the state leadership. As president of Western, I can do very little. With your commitment, we can do just about anything.”
Zacharias sketched a vision for Western at Bowling Green’s Chamber of Commerce annual banquet on Jan. 8, 1981, in a speech titled “A Time for Commitment and Change,” found in the WKU archives. At that time, Western’s enrollment the previous fall was 13,358 students, Zacharias’ speech noted, and it was completing 75 years of service to the commonwealth. He noted that WKU’s personnel of about 1,600 people brought at least $34.8 million annually to the local economy, including $31.1 million more in bank deposits and $17.7 million in retail sales, according to the text of the speech.
Zacharias’ Kentucky roots came from receiving his bachelor of arts degree from Georgetown College in 1957. He would rise in the academic ranks to executive assistant to the chancellor of the University of Texas system prior to being selected WKU president, according to WKU archives.
Ransdell and Zacharias met when Ransdell was working for WKU in 1979. Ransdell was a field representative in the WKU Office of University School Relations from 1974 to 1976 and served as associate director of alumni affairs from 1978 to 1981, according to the WKU website.
“We formed a good friendship. I called him on every career move from 1981 to 1997 to seek his advice and counsel,” Ransdell said. Ransdell became WKU’s ninth president Sept. 12, 1997.
Ransdell said Zacharias was the first WKU president who had a vision for the university beyond its then regional scope. He also wanted to strengthen the university’s academic programs, Ransdell recalled.
Zacharias and his wife of 53 years, Tommie Kline Zacharias, who survives, were the first to live in the WKU President’s Home, Ransdell said.
State Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, recalled Sunday that the Zachariases were gracious hosts at the President’s Home. Richards said Zacharias promoted academics at WKU and was pretty active with the Kentucky General Assembly.
“He communicated with us regularly and pushed for increased funding for comprehensive universities,” Richards said. “At that time, there was not much money for (university) buildings.”
Richards said he crossed paths with Zacharias through their involvement in the Southern Regional Education Board, an interstate compact of 15 states whose members push for quality in all phases of public education.
WKU named Zacharias Residence Hall after its former president. The three-story residence hall was built in 1992 and is arranged in suites where two rooms share a bathroom. Zacharias houses 206 upperclass men and women and is on the south end of campus, according to WKU’s website.
“Second in tenure only to Stephen D. Lee, the founding president of the state’s land grant institution, Zacharias brought Mississippi State to a new level of prominence during his 12 1/2 years of service,” according to a report Sunday on the Mississippi State website. “Enrollment, private contributions, research and athletic achievement all grew significantly as part of Zacharias' legacy; one unmatched in the history of the university,” the website added.
“Dr. Donald Zacharias was a transformative figure at Mississippi State University,” said MSU President Mark E. Keenum in the Mississippi State website report. “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. 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.”
Zacharias resigned his presidency from MSU in 1997 and held the title of president emeritus.
Zacharias received a master's degree from Indiana University in 1959, where he also completed a doctorate in communication in 1963. He held an honorary Doctorate of Law degree from Georgetown for distinguished contributions to the college. Beginning his higher education career in 1963 as a faculty member in communication at Indiana University, he served until 1969 when he joined the University of Texas communication department, attaining full professor rank before entering administration, the MSU website said.
“In administrative roles with the University of Texas system, he held positions as executive assistant to the chancellor of the 14-campus statewide system and as assistant to the president of the Austin campus,” the MSU website said.
Born in Salem, Ind., in 1935, Zacharias is survived by his wife; their 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. Funeral arrangements are incomplete. A public memorial service is tentatively planned on the campus of MSU on Thursday, the Mississippi State website said Sunday.