Dr. James Zarzana was cleaning out his office a summer ago when he came upon two letters written to him years ago by Cathy Cowan.
"She was away for a semester," said Zarzana, talking about the person for whom the Cowan Award is named. "The thing about Cathy was, she could simultaneously praise you and ream you out at the same time, and she did it so nicely. She didn't hold back.
"I was having a rough patch. I was discouraged. I had saved the letters. I read them over, and they brought tears to my eyes. She knew what I was feeling. She told me 'You're bigger than this; you're very successful; being in a huff will not help you.'"
The Cowan Award is named for the popular psychology professor who died in a tragic car accident on Dec. 22, 2001. It is the university's most prestigious award, and is presented to a faculty or staff member who has made great contributions to SMSU and the region.
Zarzana was selected from an impressive group of applicants for a number of reasons, not the least being his students-first attitude.
"SMSU has a strong commitment to students, which is my value," he said, talking about what has kept him at SMSU the past 25 years. "Our Global Studies program, the way we do the Liberal Education Program - it's a students-first university, and I clicked with that."
Zarzana was a city guy from Sacramento when he and his wife Marianne came to SMSU with their 2 -year-old daughter Elaine. Marianne was from the Chicago area, and they met while Jim was earning his Ph.D. in English (emphasis in British literature) from the University of Notre Dame. "It was a little bit of a culture shock, yes," he said. "Sacramento is not huge, but I was a city boy. The day before I interviewed here I interviewed in the Twin Cities, too. I needed a job, and it was tough getting a job back then. I saw the professional possibilities, and I liked the students."
Though his undergraduate, master's and doctoral degrees are in English, the subject didn't come easy to him growing up. "I had difficulty reading as a child, and I was always told I was a terrible writer, though I wanted to be one. I was always imaginative - I liked science fiction - but it wasn't until the middle of my college years that I started to write. The sense of the stories came naturally to me, but there was not a lot of encouragement. This was in the '50s, it was a different era."
That love of science fiction would lead to a series of three science fiction books, the first of which, The Marsco Dissident, came out in print recently. It's also available in electronic format from Amazon. Writing the series was a labor of love, but make no mistake, it was labor: his Marsco books were written over a 17-year timeframe.
Zarzana shies from the spotlight, preferring instead to lead from the shadows. He's helped spearhead two of the largest university projects in the past two decades: the move from a quarter system to a semester system, and the change from the Liberal Arts Core to the Liberal Education Program - the academic requirements that are the cornerstone of the university's liberal arts mission.
Yet despite all of his achievements - the committees, the volunteer work, the mentoring, the student recruiting - it's his spaghetti sauce that, eventually, gets mentioned.
For over 20 years, he made huge vats of his "Famous Zarzana's" spaghetti sauce for fundraisers at the Campus Religious Center. "It's a family recipe," he explained. "I like Italian and Indian cooking."
Zarzana will begin a three-year phased retirement that will allow him to concentrate fully on his writing. "One thing I quickly realized about this place is that the prairie lets you write. Both Marianne and I have developed as writers here."
When he arrived, Zarzana joined an English faculty that included Phil Dacey, Leo Dangel and Dave Pichaske. "Then we hired Beth (Weatherby). Our growth has been in professional writing, and the quality of faculty brought in for that is amazing. I've been blessed with exceptional colleagues, in the department and out of the department."
He was the first male in the "Lunch Bunch" of faculty who meet most every school day to solve the world's problems, and appreciates the friendships across campus that have deepened over time.
"I can't tell you how humbled and touched I am to receive the Cowan Award," he said. "It's an honor, and really belongs to Marianne and Elaine, also."