t was sad but appropriate that Bill Friday, one of this nation’s most respected educators, died quietly in his sleep at his Chapel Hill home, not far from the University of North Carolina, with which he will forever be bound, and on a Friday, which was University Day.
Today’s Our View will hardly dent the surface in an attempt to extol the virtues of President Friday, but we will begin with this. Friday had the good sense to find his bride of 70 years, Ida, in Robeson County, where she spent her childhood in the Proctorville community, and her mother was a longtime teacher. Ida survives her husband, who was 92 years old when he died.
Friday, a graduate from N.C. State University who did his duty in the U.S. Navy during World War II before earning a law degree at the University of North Carolina, is revered for his work as the UNC System president from 1956 to 1986 — a job that he joked he expected to hold “no more than a few months.”
It’s to the benefit of all North Carolinians that his forecast was off by three decades.
Friday understood the virtue and value in an education, and he fought ably during his tenure to ensure that this state’s secondary public education opportunities were accessible to everyone, regardless of race or wealth, and that its pursuit didn’t become unnecessarily complicated because of politics. Under his stewardship, the UNC System consolidated and grew from three to 16 institutions, enrollment exploded by 10 times to 125,000 students, and he helped to form what is now the Atlantic Coast Conference. The UNC System today, generally considered among the finest in the country, stands in tribute to him.
“President Friday was the most significant educator in North Carolina in the 20th century,” said C.D. Spangler Jr., who succeeded Friday as president.
Those whose good fortune it was to know Friday on a personal level are aware of his gentleness, his affability and his eagerness to engage. It was about a decade ago that several newsroom personnel at The Robesonian walked across a stage in Chapel Hill to receive awards from the North Carolina Press Association and were warmly greeted by Friday, who was shared his time and his story of how he had plucked Ida from among us. It was clear that he felt the staff was due more than a quick handshake and congratulations. It slowed the pace of the event, but no one seemed to mind.
Friday was approachable on campus, congenial and generous, which more recent generations came to understand while watching him as the host of the public television show “North Carolina People.”
But he was capable of the good fight. For years he fought the establishment of a medical school at East Carolina University; some people believe he slow played integration, but it’s more likely he understood not to push too hard in a state just shedding the chains of Jim Crow; he was a fierce proponent of freedom of speech, even when those seeking that liberty were at odds with his beliefs; and he made more than a few enemies trying to ensure that academics were not compromised during a pursuit of athletic excellence, pushing for athletic reform as a founding member of the Knight Commission.
But perhaps a comment William Clyde Friday made during a 1995 interview is the best window into his goodness.
“Courage, manners and decency cost a person so little,” he said, “but disregard them and see what you get.”
It’s a wonderful lesson to recall with our loss.