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Bill Friday, Former UNC System President, Dies At 92

BILL_FRIDAY.jpg
University of North Carolina
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Former UNC system president Bill Friday has died. He died in his sleep this morning at his home in Chapel Hill. He was 92.

Friday, who grew up in Gaston County, was one of the most important and visible North Carolinians of his time. In his 30 years as president of UNC, he steered the school through desegregation, tremendous growth and numerous political battles. Friday also hosted more than 18-hundred episodes of the program “North Carolina People” on UNC-TV program.

Dave DeWitt of North Carolina Public Radio has this remembrance:

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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.

“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. While doing it, he never forgot who he was or where he came from: A mayor’s son from Dallas, North Carolina.

“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,” Friday said. “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 $50 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.

“ We literally marched off the graduation platform at N-C 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,” Friday said.

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.

“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,” Link said.

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 canceled 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.

“The saddest moment of my years at the university was when I was there on the campus that morning when the two 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,” Friday said. “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.

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

The speaker’s 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.

“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.

“But what I worry about is the exaggeration of emphasis,” Friday said. “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 two hours to pay their respects. They included old friends, elected officials, and higher education leaders. One of them was former UNC chancellor James Moeser.

“He is a liberal, he’s a progressive,” Moeser said, “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.

“You can trust the people when they’re informed. The big problem is being sure they’re fully informed and adequately informed,” Friday said. “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 Research Triangle Park to the halls of academia he spent a lifetime promoting and protecting.