Former Western Kentucky University President Donald W. Zacharias will be fondly remembered as a fine educator, mentor, a devoted family man and an outstanding university president.
Sadly, the former WKU president died Sunday at age 77 in Starkville, Miss.
Although not from Kentucky, the Indiana native developed Kentucky roots after he received his bachelor of arts degree from Georgetown College in 1957. 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 College for distinguished contributions to the college.
He began his higher education career in 1963 as a faculty member in communication at Indiana University. After that, he rose in the academic ranks to executive assistant to the chancellor of the University of Texas system prior to being selected WKU president in 1979.
This man was well educated and rose through the ranks quite quickly, not solely based on his education, but because he was a man of vast knowledge and, equally important, a man of vision.
Zacharias was installed as WKU’s president on April, 26, 1980, succeeding longtime President Dero Downing.
During his time at the helm at WKU, Zacharias had forward-looking vision for the university and worked tirelessly to move WKU in that direction.
In remarks to WKU faculty and students in 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.”
These are the words of a man who was looking forward, challenging not only himself to strive higher, but also asking faculty and students to strive higher to make WKU the best university it could be.
WKU President Gary Ransdell was a close friend of Zacharias and considered him a mentor. Ransdell called on Zacharias over the years to get advice and input from a man he respected and admired.
John David Cole Sr., chairman of the WKU Board of Regents when it selected Zacharias as president, issued the following statement: “During the tenure of Don Zacharias as president of Western Kentucky University, the university was redefined and became a statewide institution of higher learning. There were developed varied programs of recognized academic excellence. For example, for many years WKU had the only accredited journalism program in the state. His service as president laid the foundation for the current growth and expansion of the university into a national if not international institution.”
Zacharias, who has a building named after him on WKU’s campus, obviously was a well-respected man. After leaving WKU, he became president at Mississippi State University, where his record of accomplishment continued.
We are indebted to his love and loyalty to WKU and this community. He moved WKU in the right direction and will always be remembered for that.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.