MADISON, Miss. (WLBT) - Suzanne and Keith Bailey of Madison have grown accustomed to being proud of their son, Zack. He was valedictorian of the Class of 2016 at Madison Central High School, and now he has achieved the same at the United States Air Force Academy.
Teacher Becca Temple says Zack Bailey already had a reputation for being good at soccer and just about everything else when he landed in her class his junior year.
“He was almost legendary before he came into the classroom,” Temple recalls, “so when I saw that he was on the roster for my Advanced Placement Language and Composition class, my first reaction was, well, I really have to step up my game, because I know that my average is going to be too easy.”
Temple says Bailey enjoyed being challenged, which helps explain why he chose to seek appointment to the USAFA in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
We met Bailey at his old high school, where Temple still has pictures of him and the rest of the soccer team on a bulletin board in her classroom.
“There’s many differences in a regular university and the Air Force Academy,” he says, “but I thought that the unique challenges the Air Force Academy offers is something that I really wanted. I wanted those hardships to see how I grew through those, and I didn’t think any other college would offer that.”
The first challenge was getting in. After that, he says the hardest part of his four years at the USAFA was basic cadet training, but it taught him the importance of depending on others to get through. It helped shape his view of the world.
“What I now consider the most important part of an institution, society, anything -- is the people and the ability to rely on those people, the ability to work with them, and communicate effectively,” he says. “And trust. All those things are what the military has really helped me evolve into understanding that perspective of things, and it started with basic cadet training.”
Bailey says the rigorous academics were also challenging, but he did very well. His parents say when they’d ask how he was doing in school, he would matter-of-factly tell them, each semester, that he was number-one in his class.
“About half-way through, I quit asking,” Keith Bailey says with a smile. “I even told him, ‘Son, that’s great, I’m totally proud of you. Whether you graduate first or last, it doesn’t matter.’”
Bailey maintained that top position the whole time he was there, graduating in April 2020 at the top of his class of 967 cadets. Not bad for a product of public education in Mississippi.
“I was nervous going in,” he says of those early days. “I wasn’t sure where I was going to rack and stack. I wouldn’t say that I even went in with a goal of, ‘I’m going to graduate first.’ It was really just, ‘I’m going to do the best I can, because I want to see if I can overcome this tough challenge.’”
As for his next challenge, Bailey has been chosen for a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, one of only 48 awarded in the United States. He’ll spend two years in England getting his Master’s Degrees in Global Health and Biomedical Engineering. After that, he plans to go to medical school, which the military will pay for, provided he pays it back in more military service. He hopes to do that as a military physician.
“The world is so complex now,” he says. “You have to figure out how the military fits in to healthcare and healthcare delivery. If you’re dealing with other nations, whether they’re allies or not allies, that can be a very complex situation.”
“It’s really about concentrating on how you can best contribute to the mission around you” he says. “I say mission just because I’m at the Air Force Academy, but you can have your own personal mission, whether you’re a military person or a civilian. And as long as you’re doing your best to contribute to that and knowing your role in that, I think that what we should all be aiming for.”
Temple, who has maintained contact with Bailey since his graduation in 2016, says it’s impossible to know where he might end up.
“What makes him so special is that he knows there is an endless capacity for growth,” she says. “He’s not ever going to stop at just being this, this, and this. There’s always going to be need to be a ‘next’ and then a ‘next’ and then a ‘next.’”
She says she has told him that he’ll have to stop at some point. “And he says not today. So he keeps going forward.”