ALFRED ZACHER: A Profile of a Lifetime of Service

ALFRED ZACHER: A Profile of a Lifetime of Service

Tim Harmon

Al Zacher, who literally wrote the book on the challenges of the second terms of U.S. presidents, has been particularly fascinated by how Abraham Lincoln was preparing for his. “Lincoln had four years, and look what his achievements were,” the longtime board member of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana said in a recent interview. “A common man, a minority president, he fought a war, kept the country from separating—and freed the slave population. . . . He was in the category of the greatest leaders in all history.”


Yet there is always the riddle of the mission cut short, little more than a month after his second inauguration. “As his second term approached, with victory his, Lincoln knew full well the stark reality of what lay ahead,” Zacher wrote in his 1996 book, Trial and Triumph: Presidential Power in the Second Term. Healing and restoring the nation “would take all of his powers of persuasion, of tact, and patronage, to bring the disputing factions together. . . . The defeats, the victories—all he had faced in the war, he would now meet in peace and reconstruction.”


Lincoln was forming a plan to offer the newly freed slaves protection and economic self-sufficiency while letting the former slave states begin to govern themselves again under military supervision. Zacher believes passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery in January 1865 very significantly set the tone for what Lincoln foresaw in his second term. But “it was a very different set of challenges that he would have.”


Ninety-five years old, with two grown children and six grandsons, Zacher still lives in the woodsy Fort Wayne home he shared with his wife, Hanna, a leader of the League of Women Voters who shared his passion for history and current events. She died in 2017.


Alfred J. Zacher grew up in Bay City, Michigan. His father died when he was 10, and he says he has been working since he was 14. After graduating from Antioch College, Zacher served with the Army Corps of Engineers supporting frontline troops in the Korean War and earned a master’s in economics from the University of Michigan. In the 1950s, he moved to Fort Wayne, where he founded the commercial and industrial real estate business that bears his name. Now led by his son, Steve, The Zacher Company has played a vibrant role in the growth of Indiana’s second-largest city, developing an industrial park, a hospital campus, and representing major national and regional manufacturing, retail, office, and apartment clients. “I don’t want any winners or losers in transactions,” Zacher once told an interviewer. “It’s always my intention that everybody should come out feeling they’ve been treated fairly.”


Zacher’s fondness for consensus served him well in his uncompensated side career of board service for a galaxy of nonprofits. Zacher “is not a one-hour-a-month board member,” said Judy Pursley, who has served with Zacher on the boards of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, an organization devoted to stopping child abuse, and a shelter program for homeless families. “He brings innovations,” she told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “He brings research for his innovations,” she said. “He brings a civility to the members of the board. And he brings follow-through.”


Zacher served for many years on the old Friends of The Lincoln Museum board, helped with the transition after the museum was closed, and continues to serve on the current Friends board. Sara Gabbard, who recently retired as executive director of the Friends of the Lincoln Collection of Indiana and longtime editor of Lincoln Lore, said Zacher has been “an extraordinary director. He’s been with us most of the way,” helping with fundraising and always serving on several committees.


Stewardship of the annual R. Gerald McMurtry Lecture has perhaps been Zacher’s signature contribution. A voracious reader, he participated in selecting, inviting, and, most memorably, delivering pithy, informed introductions of the authors at the annual event. “He really worked hard on giving these succinct introductions to each author that pretty well captured the guy’s career,” Gabbard said.


Zacher’s pride is evident as he explains the organization’s role in keeping Lincoln’s legacy alive, including crucial fundraising to preserve the world’s largest private collection of Lincoln material and the Rolland and McMurtry lecture series. “The collection offers the opportunity to become more intimately acquainted with Lincoln,” he said.


The Rolland Center for Lincoln Research, also underwritten by the Friends, opened in 2022 at the Allen County Public Library, where the sixteenth president’s papers, letters, and photographs are housed. Designed for students, tourists, and scholars as well as library patrons, the Center offers rotating displays of the actual memorabilia, combined with virtual screens that allow visitors to immerse themselves in other features of the collection. Fascination with Lincoln is not fading, Zacher said. “The interest on the part of young people appears to be very strong, based on the tours going on at the Rolland Center.”


Somehow, Zacher also fit a third major role into his busy lifestyle, that of a presidential scholar. He spent eight years writing Trial and Triumph, published in 1996. (A second edition, which includes assessments of Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s second terms, was published in 2012 as Presidential Power in Troubled Second Terms.) Zacher says he got the idea for the book while reading Henry Adams’s treatise on Thomas Jefferson, which suggests that Jefferson had a near-disastrous second term. “And I remembered Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing in the second term, and Nixon’s resignation. . . . ‘What,’ I thought, ‘is going on with this second term?’”


To analyze the effectiveness of second-term presidencies, he began with biographies and autobiographies, then read each chief executives’ speeches, letters, public documents, and diaries. “I continued my research until I was satisfied that I understood the inner nature of each, their strengths and shortcomings, and both their successes and failures,” he said in a previous Lincoln Lore interview. “Our mayor befriended Bill Clinton in law school and I asked him to send Clinton a copy of the book,” Zacher said. At his first press conference after reelection, President Clinton mentioned that he had just finished reading an excellent book on the second term. Zacher was deluged with interview requests from national media.


“When I was interviewed on the Today Show,” Zacher recalled, “I was asked the question, what does Clinton need to do to be successful in a second term, and I said, ‘get his scandals behind him!’” Political commentator James Carville, also on that morning’s show, told Zacher afterwards, “You sure nailed it.”


Zacher and Carville were right. What came to be known as the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky Scandal emerged a year or so later, though, as Zacher notes, the Arkansas Democrat ended up having a successful second term because of his strong economic policies and his ability to work with a Republican Congress even after impeachment. Clinton’s unlikely rebound illustrates one of the key traits Zacher sees in successful second-termers: their ability to learn from their experience in command, and their willingness to adjust their policies and priorities to meet new challenges.


“Lincoln’s great power of analysis and evaluation of the circumstances led him to constantly be thinking about solutions,” Zacher said. Even toward the end of his life, Lincoln’s thoughts about what to do about slavery and the just-conquered South were still evolving, Zacher points out. He was determined that slavery be forever eliminated, and he wanted to protect the former slaves and help them become economically independent. He also wanted to make white southerners feel accepted into the Union once again, and knew it would take time for even northerners to fully accept equal rights for African Americans.


When the tide of war turned, Lincoln’s moral and political power in the North solidified. But his resounding reelection did not ensure success in Reconstruction; the field of action would be in the South, where there was little support for him beyond the freed slaves. Meanwhile, the Radical Republicans in Congress viewed his conciliatory strategies as close to treason.


Zacher wonders whether Lincoln, always susceptible to self-doubt and prone to depression, may have doubted he was up to the task. He is intrigued by the sixteenth president’s almost reckless disregard for personal safety in the days leading up to the assassination. Lincoln had warnings from friends—even warnings in his own dreams. Did Lincoln have a secret wish to go out as a martyr rather than a failed second-term president? “I would not think of going there,” Zacher said. Lincoln’s comments in his last meeting with his Cabinet, however, suggested he was warming to the new challenges. “The morning he died,” Zacher said, “he was demanding that his version of Reconstruction be the one that would be adopted.”


But, as Zacher observes, no one truly knows what was in Lincoln’s mind.


Gabbard, who has known him for about 40 years, believes Zacher’s ability to make the distinction between facts and supposition is a sign of his intellectual honesty. So on the subject of a second term that died with Lincoln on April 15, 1865, Zacher can only offer well informed, clearly labeled speculation. “If Lincoln had not been assassinated, Reconstruction would probably have been more successful than it was under Andrew Johnson,” Zacher said. “But with the rising strength of the Radical Republicans, his leadership would have been challenged.”


If so, would Lincoln be seen as the outstanding leader we celebrate today? “It is less likely,” Zacher said.


Tim Harmon is a retired editorial writer for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.