Former UNC System President William Friday Dies
This article is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
BY JANE STANCILL
The News & Observer
For three decades, William Friday guided the University of North Carolina system with a steady hand, gracious manner and persuasive powers, becoming a beloved figure in this state and a giant in American higher education.
He died peacefully in his sleep Friday, fittingly, on the 219th birthday of the system's oldest school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the University Day celebration, the crowd fell silent, and participants placed flowers, one by one, at the base of the Old Well. Flags flew at half staff, and everywhere, it seemed, people were talking about the man and his legacy.
Friday, 92, was the face of North Carolina higher education in the 20th century. He was also regarded as an influential leader in U.S. education and one of the longest-serving university presidents.
"Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our university - and the state of North Carolina - great," UNC system President Tom Ross said. "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 the right thing for our students, faculty, staff, or our citizens. We have truly lost one of North Carolina's most special treasures."
Friday led the University of North Carolina from 1956 to 1986 during the great postwar surge in American higher education, a period of rapid transformation and social change. On his watch, the university system expanded from three campuses to six and finally to 16. Enrollment jumped from nearly 15,000 students to 125,500, and the budget swelled from $40.7 million to $1.5 billion.
He piloted the universities through the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, steering the fleet through stormy seas - such soul-shaking events as the Speaker Ban law, the Dixie Classic athletic scandal, and a lawsuit with the federal government over desegregation. His calm and gentlemanly demeanor masked his knack for negotiation and his talent as a behind-the-scenes political operator. He worked the phones like nobody else.
"For me, the University of North Carolina will always be Bill Friday's university," said Erskine Bowles, former UNC system president. "He quite literally poured the foundation for it, and then over a distinguished tenure that spanned 30 years, he helped build our public university system into the extraordinary economic and cultural engine it is for today. The positive impact this great man had on our university, our state and our nation is staggering."
In his later years, he was in many ways the state's wise grandfather, its moral conscience and a role model for generations of other leaders. He was an outspoken voice against big money and corruption in college athletics, and pushed reform as co-founder of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
And he was a model of a life well-lived, keeping a busy schedule deep into his retirement. After his presidency, he took the helm of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, a philanthropic foundation that spread millions to education and other causes. For more than four decades, he was the affable host of the UNC-TV interview show "North Carolina People with William Friday."
Despite his stature, Friday was approachable, with a warm, folksy style and a twinkle in his eye. He treated everyone the same way, and people who barely knew him called him a mentor.
William Clyde Friday was born July 13, 1920, in Raphine, Va., the eldest son among five children of Mary Elizabeth Rowan and David Latham Friday, who reared their family in the small community of Dallas, near Gastonia.
Lath Friday worked for a manufacturer of textile machinery, and put a huge emphasis on education, pushing the children to stand out from the crowd, according to accounts in "William Friday," the 1995 biography by William A. Link.
But the Depression weighed heavily on the families of Dallas and other mill towns, giving Friday a close view of poverty and desperation.
The dark time coincided with his parents' marital problems and eventual separation, as Friday entered Wake Forest College on a $50 scholarship that covered half his tuition.
To follow in his father's textile manufacturing career, Friday transferred to N.C. State, then called N.C. State College of Agriculture and Engineering, where he tolerated textiles classes and became a popular student leader and sports editor at Technician, the student newspaper. He also met his future wife, Ida Howell, a student at Meredith College.
Despite a short stint working at a DuPont plant in Virginia, a textile career would never materialize for Friday. He married Ida in 1942 and entered the Navy during World War II, and worked in an ammunition depot, a pressure-filled job managing high explosives.
After the war, Friday entered law school at UNC, where he and Ida were neighbors of future Gov. Terry Sanford and his wife. Friday finished law school in 1948, passed the bar, and soon found himself with a job offer - not in a law firm but as an assistant dean of students at the university in Chapel Hill.
It was a turning point, and would put Friday in close proximity to legendary UNC President Frank Porter Graham, a visionary with a personal touch.
He would later become assistant to Graham's successor, Gordon Gray, who lacked Graham's charisma but was a disciplined manager. Gray called Friday his "stout right arm."
By 1956, Gray had departed, and there was a leadership vacuum in the administrative ranks. In 1956, Friday was named acting president of the university, a role he assumed would be temporary. He was 35. A year later, after his able handling of a crisis at Women's College (now UNC Greensboro), Friday was given the job permanently.
It was an unlikely and rapid ascent. Less than a decade after law school, Friday was the president of the Consolidated Univer-sity, which included State College in Raleigh, UNC in Chapel Hill and Women's College in Greensboro. He would later admit to a reporter that he was scared to death.
Gov. Bev Perdue called Friday a true renaissance man.
"His dedication and service to North Carolina and monumental impact on our state cannot be overstated," she said in a statement. "There has been no person in North Carolina's history who more fully exemplified how one individual can, year after year, make a tremendous difference. It's only fitting that today, University Day at UNC, that the Carolina angels called him home."
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed.
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