First Posted: 10/12/2012
CHAPEL HILL (AP) — His first name was William, but few ever called him by it, preferring to use the title that was given to him in 1956 and that he earned for a lifetime — President Friday.
William “Bill” Friday, the man who personified higher education in the state even after he stepped down after 30 years as president of the University of North Carolina system, died at his home in Chapel Hill early Friday. His special assistant, Virginia Taylor, said Friday died in his sleep. He was 92.
Erskine Bowles, who became UNC system president in 2006, always addressed him as “President Friday.”
“I never call him anything else,” Bowles said in early 2009. “It’s just out of respect. He was president when I was a student. He’s been a hero of mine since I was in short pants. I have enormous respect for this great man, and I do consider him to still be the president of the university. I stand here on his shoulders, there’s no question about it. And every president that follows me will.”
Friday suffered a mild heart attack in 2008 and had open heart surgery the following year. He was hospitalized this summer to have a permanent pacemaker placed, but Taylor said he had not been ill before his death.
Born in Raphine, Va., Friday grew up in Dallas, N.C. Though widely associated with Chapel Hill, he was actually an alumnus of rival N.C. State University, earning a degree in textiles in 1941. After serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, he entered UNC School of Law, graduating in 1948.
He was just 35 years old and the assistant to outgoing UNC President Gordon Gray when he was offered the position of interim president of the UNC system in 1956. He didn’t expect to stay long, telling a reporter: “I expect that I will be in this place no more than a few months.”
He served as UNC president until 1986.
“Bill Friday was one of the shapers of this modern, multi-campus system,” said William Link, author of “William Friday: Power, Purpose and American Higher Education,” a biography published in 1997. “He was the person who kind of consolidated things and built the system the way it is now.
“It’s gone through a lot of changes, but it’s Bill Friday’s university in a lot of ways.”
That’s an even more remarkable accomplishment considering Friday’s presidency came not long after that of Frank Porter Graham, who was president from 1930 to 1949. Graham was the first president of the “consolidated university” — three universities that formed the basis for the 16-campus system that exists today.
Friday was more than an excellent leader, Link said. He was an empathetic man who connected with people, remembering details about someone he met just once.
“He would listen to you and find a way to connect with you,” Link said. “He loved students. He was very much on the ground and in person. He was very unlike the kind of university presidents we have now, who are CEO types and no one has access. Bill Friday, everyone had access to. But he managed it in a very cool way.”
Link’s biography portrayed Friday as the calm at the center of many storms — among them a 10-year fight with what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
The last was “the heaviest burden to carry for the longest period of time,” Friday said in an Associated Press interview in 1995.
The fight involved the agency’s contention that duplicate programs at traditionally white and black campuses must be eliminated to achieve racial balance, a proposal that Friday fought throughout the Carter administration. It was settled quietly with a consent decree in 1981 with the Reagan administration that required UNC to spend more money at historically black institutions but did not end duplicate programs.
To reach that settlement, Friday, a progressive and a liberal, had to work not only with the Republican president but also with conservative Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
“For Friday, it was a question of whether the control of the university was going to lie with the state and UNC or with the federal government,” Link said. “It was a classic civil rights struggle, except it was really profoundly complicated. Friday, a liberal, was on the side of people resisting federally controlled desegregation.”
Friday had an instinct for politics, but he resisted talk that he might run for the U.S. Senate, Link said. He didn’t want to politicize the university, remembering the racially smeared campaign in 1950 for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate that Graham lost to Willis Smith.
After leaving the UNC presidency, Friday served as president of the William R. Kenan Jr. Fund and then as director of its parent philanthropy, the W.R. Kenan Jr. Charities. He also hosted a show on UNC-TV, “North Carolina People,” and was the founding co-chairman, along with Hesburgh, of the Knight Commission, a privately funded group formed in 1989 to promote reforms and greater presidential control of college athletics.
He married his wife, Ida, a Robeson County native, in 1942, and they were wed for 70 years until his death. She has promoted the arts through her work with numerous state organizations, the university said. UNC’s continuing education campus is named for both of them — the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education.
Even in retirement, he maintained an information network that kept him tapped into everything UNC-related. Bowles said he met with Friday nearly every week, and current UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp said he regularly relied on his counsel.
“Bill Friday was committed to providing access to high-quality, affordable higher education to North Carolina students,” Thorp said Friday. “He was tireless in his efforts to underscore the importance of higher education to people from all walks of life, as well as to our state’s future prosperity.”
Friday’s death came on University Day, the 219th anniversary of UNC’s founding as the nation’s first public university. Unfailingly genteel in his manner, as president emeritus he had long been regarded as a living link to the institution’s heritage and touchstone for its values.
He would stand when a woman walked into the room and use the title “mister” when discussing his friends.
“Courage, manners and decency cost a person so little,” he said in the 1995 AP interview. “But disregard them and see what you get.”