CHAPEL HILL William Friday was remembered Wednesday as a man of uncommon civility, integrity, intellect and warmth, a man who built up a public university system and, in the process, became a once-in-a-century leader for North Carolina.
Dignitaries from across the state and nation gathered Wednesday to say farewell to Friday, a humble leader who through his grace, charm and gentle nudging brought many of them together in his 92 years for issues large and small. Former governors, higher education leaders, judges, TV celebrities, politicians and admiring friends filled Memorial Auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The service hearkened back to Friday’s 1957 inauguration, when he became president of the university at just 36 years old. The mourners sang “God of our Fathers,” the same hymn from that ceremony.
UNC President Tom Ross quoted the promise Friday made May 8, all those years ago, when he said, “It is with you, the people of North Carolina, that I have entered into solemn compact today. It is to you I have pledged my mind, my heart, my hands and my strength.”
Friday was president of the UNC system for 30 years, as it expanded from three to six and finally 16 campuses. In the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, he dealt with desegregation, campus protest, athletic scandal, political controversy and upheaval as the public universities were reorganized into a single entity.
“As we sit together here today,” Ross said, “we can say with great assurance, ‘President William Clyde Friday, you kept your pledge, you gave us your all, and we, the university and this state are better because of you.’ ”
Gov. Bev Perdue recalled her many conversations with Friday, talking about a philosophy he championed until his death: that a good education in North Carolina “was a birthright.”
Friday was fond of handing out pamphlets of North Carolina’s constitution, with its promise of a low-cost education. He would underline that clause.
‘Chief, I’ve got a little matter’
Former Gov. Jim Hunt recalled Friday as a master of calling on political leaders to bandy about his ideas for the state.
“He’d call up and say, ‘Chief’– he’d always call us chief (he flattered us) – and say, ‘Chief, I’ve got a little matter I’d like to talk to you about,’ ” Hunt said.
A meeting would be scheduled, the men would go to a room in the governor’s mansion, and talk and talk. The former governor joked that when he left the meeting, his agenda would be set for the next six months.
“The secret of Bill Friday wasn’t just what he did,” Hunt said. “It was what he got us to do.”
C.D. Spangler, the Charlotte businessman who assumed the helm of the UNC system after Friday’s reign, described his predecessor as “the most significant education leader in North Carolina of the 20th century.”
Friday also was a family man whose 70-year marriage to his wife Ida and beaming love for his children and grandchildren were a model that James H. Johnson, a William Rand Kenan distinguished professor of management at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he strives for in his life.
Friday was a “quintessential role model,” Johnson said, who could move from Main Street to the palaces of power.
His daughter, Mary Friday Leadbetter, provided a glimpse of life in the president’s home, where the door was never locked and students frequently visited.
“Early one morning, Daddy came downstairs and discovered a young man asleep on the couch in his study,” she recalled. “Bill Friday, always undaunted, woke him up, introduced himself and asked his name. Daddy never met a stranger. And within a year, this same young man was invited back to the house with his own student group. And as I recall, Mama made brownies.”
The Friday family members weren’t allowed to take themselves too seriously. They even had cocktail napkins that said, “Ida and what’s his name?”
But they did take public service seriously, Leadbetter said.
“Fran and I feel comforted that his legacy will live on because, for years to come, in the face of difficult decisions, so many of our citizens will ask themselves, ‘What would Bill Friday do?’ ”
His longtime assistant Virginia Taylor asked the crowd to step up. “Friends, the torch is now in our hands,” she said. “May we do our best to keep it burning brightly in honor of this great man.”
‘Our most lovely gentleman’
But no one dared predict that there would be another leader like him.
“It seems hard to imagine any one person filling Bill Friday’s shoes,” said Hannah Gage, former chairwoman of the UNC Board of Governors. “Now, we’ll have to build an army to continue the work of that one man.”
Across the street, wilted flowers still lay at the base of the Old Well. They were placed there Oct. 12, the 219th anniversary of the Chapel Hill campus, on the day Friday died.
Amid the flowers, there was a piece of paper that said, “Godspeed to our most lovely gentleman of the old school.”
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