By Beth McNichol ’95 and David E. Brown ’75
He was the citizen’s TV host, and he didn’t need hardball questions to get at the essence of his subjects — about 2,000 of them — whose talks comprise an ample history of 20th-century North Carolina.
He was a fierce and clever fighter when the universities or the other important institutions were attacked, but a fighter who knew when to let impossibly contentious battles play out while he rearmed and restrategized to fight still stronger tomorrow.
He was a better-than-average baseball player, taken aback and gradually sickened by aspects of the games he found decidedly unsportsmanlike, and he cried out, sometimes in a wilderness.
A quarter century after the conclusion of his 30-year presidency of the UNC System, he still came in mornings to a small office in the Graham Memorial, where you could visit but you never could have audience with him. Then, as always before, he had audience with you.
After his heart tried to quit on him last summer, he was back in front of the camera. He hit 92 but never retired.
Is this his epitaph? As tuition at UNC System universities started on a steepening curve in recent years, he begged us to remember: If you can get me there — by your standards — I can make something of myself; but to shut me out from the start because I can’t afford it is fundamentally wrong for our public universities, the universities of you and me.
William C. Friday ’48 (LLB) died on the morning of Oct. 12, University Day. He was called, repeatedly, the most important North Carolinian of his century.
History will remember Friday as a sensible agent for his 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.
“President Friday faced many challenges during his tenure, from desegregation, to the Speaker Ban controversy, to athletics scandals, to budget problems, to governance concerns,” Thomas Ross ’75 (JD), the latest to serve as UNC System presi- dent, said at Friday’s memorial service. “He resolved them all, through intellect, creativity, toughness, an unbending integrity, a true sense of justice and a steady, gracious, stately demeanor.”
Shaped in sacrifice, service
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, to name two.
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 (MA, ’48 JD) and Dick Phillips ’48 (JD) would get out of law classes and go down to Merritt’s Store to have a beer. (Phillips says it’s important not to leave Bill Dees ’41 (’48 JD), John Jordan ’42 (’48 LLBJD) and Claude Seila ’48 (LLB) out of that group, though he can’t vouch for all of them in the Merritt’s crowd.)
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 Com- mencement. 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 Navy 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.
Greeted by controversy
The new president of the Consolidated University, Gordon Gray ’30, made Friday his assistant in 1951 and groomed him to take over as acting president. He was only 36 when he assumed Gray’s job in 1956. Crises came his way early.
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 a concern about which he would spend the rest of his life speaking out: 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-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The commission’s initial report caused the NCAA to redraw the organization’s boundaries, wresting its control from athletics directors and placing it in the hands of college presidents.
“But there were a few athletic directors in there who were so dominant, and so forceful, that they could have their way, and they weren’t about to give up all the prerogatives that come with this status,” Friday said in a 1990 oral history. “I had never traveled with the football team as president, or the basketball team, because I figured that you had to keep yourself one step back. And I loved college sports, but I figured that if you ever got involved in it, then your ability to deal with it was much more stressful and much more difficult. And you became captive in some ways.”
“The restoration of presidential control of an institution within the purview of presidents was a rare idea at the time,” Hodding Carter, UNC professor of leadership and public policy, said at Friday’s memorial service, amid a turmoil of athletics scandal on the system’s flagship cam- pus. “He envisioned [Knight’s] mission in the late 1980s … an attempt to begin to set right the incredible corruption and disruption of big-time athletics.”
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 the 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 ’55 wrote of his days as 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.”
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 campuses. Friday fought 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. He would call it the most trying time of his presidency.
Faith in the people
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.”
As Kuralt wrote, “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 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 chair 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.”
Friday often was courted toward political office. Having witnessed the bitter, race-tinged campaign in which another UNC icon, Frank Porter Graham (class of 1909), lost his U.S. Senate seat in 1950, Friday said to his biographer in 1990, “It drove me away from political involvement, as a participant. I said, ‘I don’t want to waste my life fooling with that kind of garbage and trash.’ And I haven’t regretted that decision at all, because I learned that someone in an administrative position in a university, at the level that I was privileged to serve, can do so much more than a governor or senator, when it comes to getting lasting things done in a state.”
Friday retired as executive director of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill to return to the University with the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence in 1999. As a University Distinguished Professor, it allowed him to rekindle his true love of interacting with students and the citizens, titled and ordinary, who populated the campus.
In a 1986 interview on the eve of his retirement as system president, Friday remarked that his greatest fear regarding the University was that rising tuition costs would create a class society based on who could and could not afford to attend.
“That’s the fear that I have about this University, the greatest fear of all, that the ability to pay to get in here will become a more controlling factor for admission than academics,” said Friday. “The pressure to raise in-state tuition is always there in every year. But I’m a low tuition man. I’ve been one all of my days.”
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 sig- nificant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics over the course of his or her career.
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.”
As a large crowd departed his memorial service, the celebrants passed by the memorial to alumni who died in all wars outside Carolina’s Memorial Hall. On the day the monument was dedicated in 2007, Bill Friday went to the microphone and reminded those gathered of what the word “statesman” means.
On that day he said:
“So what about us? What are we doing to make our democracy worthy of the sacrifice of these 684 noble spirits?
“How would each of us answer that question today? Are we moving more towards peace, not only among nations, but among citizens at home? Are we vigilant in securing freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of the press, security of our homes and freedom of want among our people? Just how sensitive are we to human suffering in Darfur and to the oppression in the global community in which we now live? What are we doing to return civility to public life and to restoring the posture of our country as a moral, compassionate and caring nation?
“In our society, each of us is accountable and personally responsible through our own words and deeds as our conscience dictates; but we all know and we understand and we believe that our democracy, even though sometimes uneven and messy, still represents the best hope of humankind at home and throughout the world. We believe in freedom and liberty and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to make freedom and liberty secure for all people. The 684 lives we memorialize brought you and me to the special moment in independence that we so cherish. Here and now, you and I can do no less than rededicate our lives, our energy and our strength to make sure, very sure, that in our time, our generation will have done its part, done our very best to make this democracy worthy of the sacrifices of those we honor.”
BETH MCNICHOL ’95 is a freelance writer from Durham and former associate editor
of the Review. DAVID E. BROWN ’75 is senior associate editor of the Review.
Copyright 2012 UNC General Alumni Association
Published in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review