William Friday Dies on University Day at 92

Bill Friday '48 (JD).

Over All the Commotion, Bill Friday Heard the Voice that Said, ‘I’m Going to Be Somebody.’

William Friday ’48 (LLB), who guided the UNC System through often tumultuous waters as its president for 30 years, died this morning, on University Day. Friday was 92.

History will remember Friday as a sensible agent for its enduring lessons on race, politics and free speech, as a defender of the good of higher education in society. But the men and women who entered college from Wilmington to Cullowhee and all points in between during his tenure, looking for a more robust life than the one from which they had come, will remember him as something else, too — as the conscience of a state striving to be its better self and a voice that never stopped believing in its future.

Friday leaves behind a life so broad and deep that his place in North Carolina history had long since been established; he already was a marble marker of integrity etched in the minds of those who knew him, prompting the late Charles Kuralt ’55 to call him “the best North Carolinian of his time.”

Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86, addressing an audience assembled for University Day, said, “Our state has lost one of its most remarkable citizens. He served with passion, integrity, and an abiding dedication to justice.” Thorp called for a moment of silence.

He added in a statement: “His influence on public higher education in our state and across the nation is legendary. In a lifetime devoted to public service, Bill Friday was committed to providing access to high-quality, affordable higher education to North Carolina students. He was tireless in his efforts to underscore the importance of higher education to people from all walks of life, as well as to our state’s future prosperity.

“I always admired his conviction to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. It was only fitting that Mr. Friday joined us a year ago today — on University Day — to dedicate the Speaker Ban marker in McCorkle Place documenting the efforts that our own students and he made to overturn a misguided law.”

UNC President Tom Ross ’75 (JD) said: “Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our University — and the state of North Carolina — great. He was a man of unquestioned honor and integrity who devoted a lifetime of extraordinary leadership and service to the University and state he loved so much. He also was a man of deep courage and conviction who never backed away from doing what was right thing for our students, faculty, staff, or our citizens. He quite frankly set the gold standard for university leadership. His life was a testament to the notion that one person can make a lasting difference and change the world.

“We have truly lost one of North Carolina’s most special treasures.”

A quarter century after his retirement from the presidency of the UNC System, Friday still came in mornings to a small office in the Graham Memorial, where anyone could book time to reminisce, to plug into his steel-trap memory of Carolina, Chapel Hill and the farthest-flung corners of the state, and to listen to his take and his hopes on dozens of issues of the day. He had directed the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust. The 41-year run of his weekly television interviews with people who mattered in North Carolina was still going.

Born in 1920 in Raphine, Va., and raised as the oldest of five in Dallas, N.C. — where his father was mayor and the bookkeeper for a textile company — he was shaped by Depression-era wanting and the sacrifice and service of a world called to war. The way through and back from both circumstances, he believed, was education, and Friday became its grandest champion.

In 2009, he remarked of the importance of college to the state, saying that “the young women and men come in here off of farms and small towns, and suddenly the whole world opens up. It’s a huge challenge. It’s a great sense of release: ‘I’m going to be somebody.’ ”

Behind his words as a crusader for education was his helmsmanship in progress — the establishment of the Research Triangle Park, the concept of the student aid Pell Grant, a constant voice for athletics reform; and in controversy — Friday knew when to shout and when to lie low on issues often centered at Chapel Hill but that by their nature had implications for all the campuses: the Speaker Ban, the handling of student unrest, the federal government’s desegregation lawsuit and many others.

Anyone who ever met him or heard him speak can see him jumping into the car and rushing to Raleigh to buttonhole legislators — like a parent who gets an urgent call from his child’s school — as soon as he heard about the clandestine passage of the infamous speaker law.

Many people automatically addressed him as “doctor.” He didn’t particularly like that elevation. He was Mister Friday. He lived in the Victory Village prefab housing complex after the war. He and Ida ’47 (MPH) celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on May 13. A conversation with him always included contrast to the way Chapel Hill once was — recently he recalled when he, Terry Sanford ’39 (’46 LLBJD), Bill Aycock ’37 (’48 JD) and Dick Phillips ’48 (JD) would get out of law classes and go down to Merritt’s Store to have a beer.

Friday’s higher learning began at Wake Forest College in 1937, after which he transferred to N.C. State as a sophomore to study textile manufacturing. According to William Link’s biography, William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education, Friday immersed himself in campus affairs, becoming senior class president and the first student asked to speak at commencement. Link, who captured many of Friday’s memories in oral histories, discovered that Friday was known on campus for both his drive and his sensitivity, his innate ability to relate to and care for fellow students from all stripes of life.

It was a powerful combination — echoing the traits of a persuasive father and an empathetic mother, who separated while he was in college — and one that would form the foundation of a leader for the troubled times ahead.

After graduation in 1941, Friday entered the U.S. Naval Reserve, a lieutenant who served as the plant operations manager of an ammunition depot in Norfolk, Va. When his four years of service ended, Friday moved for the first and last time to Chapel Hill, where he earned a law degree in 1948 and stumbled into the career that would eventually make him a sought-after leader and adviser from the state house to the White House. But it was his own house he was interested in at the time: He signed on to be the assistant dean of student affairs at the University, a job he viewed as only temporary while his wife — who was one of the first women to teach at UNC, in the School of Public Health — was finishing her master’s.

Friday had made an impression on the campus administration — in particular, new president of the consolidated University, Gordon Gray ’30, who made him his assistant in 1951 and groomed Friday to take over as acting president when Gray stepped down to work in the Eisenhower administration.

He was only 36 when he assumed Gray’s job in 1956, but the hope his predecessor harbored for him proved prescient. Friday seemed to possess an internal weathervane that not only tracked the winds of change — and there were many during his tenure — but also keenly understood which were worth following and which were worth fighting.

Early in his post, Friday experienced crises that fell solidly in the latter category. He already had had a hand in forming the Atlantic Coast Conference as a way to “enforce stricter controls over athletics.” Then, in 1961, a point-shaving scandal that involved basketball players at N.C. State and UNC — and the subsequent threat on a Wolfpack athlete’s life by a gambler — led Friday to abolish the Dixie Classic, an annual winter tournament that had grown so popular that fans were including tickets in their wills.

The decision was ill-received by sports fans, but Friday held firm. “When human life is threatened,” he later told UNC-TV, “when something is out of control the way this was, there was no alternative, and we did what we were morally bound to do.”

Friday, who had been sports editor of N.C. State’s Technician, had grown up playing high school and American Legion baseball and was a good enough catcher that he once pined for a professional sports career. But the Dixie Classic incident had driven home for Friday a concern that he would spend the rest of his life speaking out against: The subordination of education to athletic prowess and profit.

The conflict between the two worlds would continue to return to Friday’s thoughts; in 1989, he became a founding co-chairman of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The commission’s initial report caused the NCAA to redraw the organization’s boundaries, wresting its control from athletic directors and placing it in the hands of college presidents.

Other threats to the principles of higher education erupted in the 1960s, including the battle over the Speaker Ban, which would become another defining moment in Friday’s career. The law, enacted in 1963 by the N.C. General Assembly, prohibited Communist sympathizers from speaking on university campuses, and Friday labored tirelessly against it, initially in discussions with University leaders and state lawmakers. As a servant of the trustees, but also a trustee to the citizenry, he walked a fine line between upholding law and striving to get it changed until the ban was repealed on the strength of a student-led lawsuit.

“The idea was,” Friday said in oral histories, “— and we never varied in this — do whatever is necessary to get rid of it. And we kept that right on through. Sometimes underground, and sometimes out visible. Always negotiating, but never compromising.

“Because there are not many things left in this country that you can stand on without any fear. And one of them is the right to say what you think. … And most of all, universities are places where freedom should be spoken.”

Friday’s leadership coincided with periods of tremendous social change for the state and for the universities in North Carolina, and his approach in those conflicts always was partnership and conciliation over condescension and anger. In 1969, when the Black Student Movement at UNC staged a sit-in at Lenoir Hall over worker conditions and wages, Friday opposed the suggestion of Gov. Bob Scott ’52 to intervene by sending state troopers to diffuse the tension. Although Scott sent troopers in riot gear over Friday’s wishes, the situation ultimately was resolved, and workers’ demands for wage increases were met, through University leadership and without the use of force.

Charles Kuralt wrote of his days at a Daily Tar Heel reporter, “I wrote a lot of stories which began, ‘South Building sources say. …’ Bill Friday was the South Building sources, all of them. He made South Building seem to make sense, and warded off many a potential controversy, because his patient explanations of things made such good sense. He was a patient explainer, a moderator, a calm advocate, which he has continued to be all these years, to the great good fortune of the University and the state.” (Friday moved the president’s office out of South Building when Bill Aycock became chancellor in 1957.)

Similarly, Friday steered the UNC System through its expansion to 16 schools in 1972 and in its battles with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare over desegregation, in which HEW sought to eliminate duplicate degree programs across UNC System campuses. Friday fought the HEW’s requests in an effort to maintain control over the system and to ensure that the state’s historically black colleges would retain their identities. The 11-year controversy ended, as it had with the Speaker Ban, when a steady and determined Friday won a legal battle in 1981.

In oral histories, Friday called the fractious first two decades of his watch — including his rejection of an offer to work in the Johnson administration and a fraught battle with East Carolina University over its wishes for a medical school — “a hard, hard 20 years. But kind of … exhilarating, in the sense of, you felt like something was happening here that was important to North Carolina. Not that I was doing it. But that I had the best seat in the house, ’cause I could watch it all happen. And be some small part of it.”

Friday remarked that the era showed “what a university really is. Why it’s frequently so necessary. And in this particular case why and how … the University of North Carolina is so much the beating heart of the state itself.”

Wrote Kuralt, “He saw what the University at Chapel Hill could be when most everybody else in the state was satisfied with what it already was.”

Friday once noted that his progressive stances may have created, at times, the perception of philosophical distance between the typical North Carolinian and the University. But even Friday’s opponents respected his skillful approach to conflict and his obvious love affair with the state. He never stopped being the boy from Gaston County, long after he retired from the system’s presidency in 1986. His fascination and easy relationship with the state’s residents was evident in his long-running WUNC-TV interview program, North Carolina People, which he hosted from 1971-2012.

He believed deeply in the people who occupied this Southern space and time with him, especially those in small towns leading earnest lives. He never forgot the lessons of being a child of the Depression, campaigning to bring poverty’s realities to light as the chairman of the N.C. Poverty Project and the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, and through any speaking opportunity that came his way.

Jack Betts ’68, longtime political observer for North Carolina newspapers, said in 2010: “He often seemed to be everywhere, but he was always no further away than a telephone, willing to talk about state history, fully cognizant of the state’s many needs and always enthusiastic about the progress the state could make through its various educational enterprises, especially the University. He was a University president, but at heart he has always been a teacher.”

Among a long list of awards and honors, Friday received, in 1997, one of the first National Humanities Medals. In 1986, he received the American Council on Education’s Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Fridays in 1981 received the North Carolina Public Service Award, and in 2004, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine for service to the state. They are recipients of the GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal and the University’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Friday holds UNC’s Davie Award for service to the University. In 2004, he received the Gerald R. Ford Award from the NCAA, honoring an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics over the course of his or her career.

UNC’s continuing education center bears the Fridays’ names. The William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education serves adult learners through credit and noncredit courses — part of the legacy of the 1913 Bureau of Extension, established to help the University reach out to the citizenry. It also operates an education conference center.

Friday never allowed room for exalted praise and celebrated ego in his mission to serve. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, he was asked in a Durham Herald-Sun article if he could envision another “Bill Friday” leading the University one day, “transforming it” as he had done. His answer said everything you ever wanted to know about William Friday, and everything he meant to those he touched.

“I would not claim credit by any means,” he said. “Mrs. Friday and I gave our very best. We did our very best, and we’d do it over again.”

— Beth McNichol ’95

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