William Friday's Noble Example
Our state has lost a giant - and The Pilot has lost a cherished friend - with the death of William Friday, longtime former president of the University of North Carolina system.
Perhaps no one else did more in the past century to elevate the quality of life in North Carolina or set a nobler example of good citizenship, vision, professionalism and simple human goodness.
Ironically, this humble, genial man, who came to exemplify the best of our state, wasn't born in it. Nor was he an undergraduate alumnus of the campus with which he came to be so strongly identified. Born in Raphine, Va., he was raised in tiny Dallas, N.C. It was only after earning a degree in textile engineering from N.C. State and serving in World War II that he found his way to Chapel Hill, where he received a law degree.
He never had a chance to practice law. He soon found himself serving as assistant to Gordon Gray, then president of a three-campus system including Chapel Hill, State and "Woman's College," which later became UNC Greensboro. He became secretary of the university in 1955 and president a year later, at the tender age of 36. He held that position with distinction through 30 often-tumultuous years.
A Fighter for Freedom
Friday - who died on University Day - initially opposed expanding to the 16-campus system that he came to personify. During his tenure, systemwide enrollment leapt from fewer than 15,000 students to more than 125,000. The annual budget soared from $40.7 million to $1.5 billion.
Despite his unfailingly polite demeanor, the soft-spoken Friday never shrank from controversy. In 1961, he made the highly unpopular (but correct) decision to shut down the Dixie Classic basketball tournament after an ugly point-shaving scandal involving physical threats against players.
Though he was instrumental in the creation of the Atlantic Coast Conference, he later became deeply concerned about what he called the "corrupting influence" of big-time sports on higher education. That concern led him to co-found the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
He fought hard for academic freedom, most notably in his successful campaign to repeal the Speaker Ban Law, which prohibited communists and government critics from speaking on campus. He played a central role in bringing about racial integration. His most painful and misunderstood experience was the 10-year battle he fought with the federal government, resisting demands that duplication of programs at traditionally white and minority campuses be eliminated.
An Unparalleled Contribution
Friday never seemed to forget a name - or the pet cause of whoever he was talking to. He had an unusual gift for making untold numbers of individuals - including several people involved with The Pilot - think of him as a personal friend. He graced several Pilot events.
In terms of integrity and devotion to the state, Friday was easily the most widely respected man in North Carolina. A prestigious council once singled him out as the nation's most effective public university president.
More than once, he politely considered and then rejected suggestions - sometimes even urgent pleas - that he run for the U.S. Senate or other high political office. Among other things, he feared politicizing the university whose independence he had so faithfully preserved.
Friday remained remarkably active in his quarter-century of retirement. Almost to the end, he continued to host his UNC-TV interview show, "North Carolina People." He and his beloved wife, Ida, were married for 70 years. Other survivors include daughters Frances and Mary.
No one can ever quite take the place of Bill Friday. But at least we can find comfort in the fact that he was with us for so long and left behind such a splendid heritage.
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