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Remembering Bill Friday

Bill Friday
UNC-Chapel Hill

Former UNC system president Bill Friday has died. Friday passed away in his sleep this morning at his home in Chapel Hill. He was 92 years old. Friday was president of UNC for 30 years, and steered it through desegregation, unprecedented growth, and numerous political battles. He also hosted more than 18-hundred episodes of North Carolina People on UNC-TV.  Dave DeWitt has this remembrance of one of the most important and most visible North Carolinians of his time.

Dave DeWitt: In baseball, there’s no more central player than the catcher. He’s usually the team’s leader, he calls the pitches that will be thrown, and he’s involved in every play.  When he was a kid during the Depression, Bill Friday wanted to grow up and play professional baseball. Not surprisingly, as he told WUNC’s The State of Things in 2007, Friday was a catcher.

Bill Friday: I knew I could play a pretty good game, but something was pulling at me. I knew I had to go do something else.

That “something else” would be to transform and lead the University of North Carolina system for 30 years, the longest tenure of any University president in the 20th century. While doing it, he never who he was or where he came from: a mayor’s son from Dallas, North Carolina.

Friday: Growing up in a small town you want to burst out of it, but when you get older, you never forget what you learned from people who were pioneers in the sense these individuals were. They built these little communities and they built the industries that were there. And you learn how to trust and you learn what integrity meant and you learned what hard work meant.

When he graduated from high school, Friday and his father hopped in the family’s Ford Model A and drove to Wake Forest College, back when it was actually in Wake Forest. The Dean offered him a fifty dollar a year scholarship and he enrolled. He transferred to NC State a couple years later, was elected class president, and graduated with a degree in textile science in 1941.

Friday: We literally marched off the graduation platform at NC State straight into military service. Most of the men in that class were ROTC trainees and they’ve done well. They were the boys who got into World War Two. Very raw.

Seven days after being discharged from the Navy, Friday enrolled in Law School at UNC-Chapel Hill. He married Ida, and took a job in the dean of students office until she finished her master’s in public health.  Six years later, at the age of just 36, he became president of the UNC system. It was a meteoric rise, but in a short time, he had shown rare aptitude for the job. William Link is the author of a biography of Friday.

William Link: Generally speaking I don’t think in University presidents you don’t get the kind of combination of managerial skill and statesmanship, sort of personal touch, that you had with Bill Friday. It’s a very rare combination.

Friday’s style was more back-room, one-on-one than bombastic speeches. But he didn’t shy away from a fight, either, and he got one soon into his tenure when a very popular basketball tournament that featured UNC, NC State, Duke, and Wake Forest, got into trouble with gambling. Friday cancelled the Dixie Classic, a move that made him highly unpopular. But that challenge was nothing compared to the one a few years later. In 1963, the State Legislature passed the so-called speaker’s ban law, prohibiting communists from speaking on campus.

Friday: The saddest moment of my years at the University was when I was there on the campus that morning when the 2 communists the students had invited stood there on the sidewalk and 3,000 students were on the other side of that rock wall listening to them. Guess which picture made the front page of every major newspaper in America the next day? This is freedom at Chapel Hill.

The Speaker’s Ban was the tip of the iceberg during the tumultuous 1960s. Friday helped steer the UNC system through those times, providing a crucial buffer between state legislators on the hunt for what they saw as radicals on campus, and students and faculty lashing out at outsiders who they thought threatened academic freedom.

Friday: The University of North Carolina kept its head during this entire business. Like with Viet Nam and the other matters. Nobody burned a building. We didn’t stop teaching school. We didn’t stop classes. We allowed free discussion.

The Speaker Ban was overturned in federal court in 1968. But four years after that, Friday ended up losing a battle that would eventually go on to define his presidency. Governor Bob Scott wanted the University system to grow to include all 16 state universities. Friday didn’t agree with it at first, but when the decision became inevitable, he took on the task. Last November, at a gathering that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the creation of 16-campus system, Friday recalled those first pivotal months.

Friday: I think the most important thing we did though, was from the very beginning, we agreed in our organization that the traditions and commitment of the institutions and their stated purposes would not be tampered with.

Friday would go on to lead the 16-campus system until he retired in 1986. He continued hosting the show North Carolina People on UNC-TV, making him arguably one of the most visible men in the state.  And he remained a strong voice for several causes, including college affordability and the de-emphasizing of big-time sports. He was one of the original co-chairs of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Friday: But what I worry about is the exaggeration of emphasis. We’ve become an entertainment industry. We’re not playing football the way we did in the 40’s, for the fun of it. It’s really a big-time, high-salaried operation that seems to keep on going, unrestrained.

At his 90th birthday party in 2010, Friday’s friends and well-wishers lined up for nearly 2 hours to pay their respects. They included old friends, elected officials, and higher education leaders. One of them was former UNC chancellor James Moeser.

James Moeser: He is a liberal, he’s a progressive. But he knew he was operating in a conservative state. And he had the ability to never get so far ahead of people that he couldn’t lead them. And I think that’s what made him such an effective leader.

Whether on TV or in private conversations, Friday never missed a chance to declare his love for his home state, and its university system. To him, the two have always been one and the same.

Friday: You can trust the people when they’re informed. The big problem is being sure they’re fully informed and adequately informed. And I hope and trust that the university will, in its own way, begin to assert itself again by identifying issues that the people must know about. Water. Clean air. Transportation. Delivery of health care. These are things that have everything to do with what kind of North Carolina we will have.
Friday’s good friend Charles Kuralt once called him the “best North Carolinian of his time.” And Friday’s influence will be felt for many years to come in every corner of his beloved state, from the small dirt farms and textile plants of his youth, to the high-tech labs he helped create in RTP, to the halls of academia he spent a lifetime promoting and protecting.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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