Former UNC system president William Friday dies

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 12, 2012 

— For three decades, William Friday guided the University of North Carolina system with a steady hand, gracious manner and persuasive powers, becoming a beloved figure in this state and a giant in American higher education.

He died peacefully in his sleep Friday, fittingly, on the 219th birthday of the system’s oldest school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the University Day celebration, the crowd fell silent, and participants placed flowers, one by one, at the base of the Old Well. Flags flew at half staff, and everywhere, it seemed, people were talking about the man and his legacy.

Friday, 92, was the face of North Carolina higher education in the 20th century. He was also regarded as an influential leader in U.S. education and one of the longest-serving university presidents.

“Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our university – and the state of North Carolina – great,” UNC system President Tom Ross said. “He was a man of unquestioned honor and integrity who devoted a lifetime of extraordinary leadership and service to the university and state he loved so much. He also was a man of deep courage and conviction who never backed away from doing what was the right thing for our students, faculty, staff, or our citizens. We have truly lost one of North Carolina’s most special treasures.”

Friday led the University of North Carolina from 1956 to 1986 during the great postwar surge in American higher education, a period of rapid transformation and social change. On his watch, the university system expanded from three campuses to six and finally to 16. Enrollment jumped from nearly 15,000 students to 125,500, and the budget swelled from $40.7 million to $1.5 billion.

He piloted the universities through the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, steering the fleet through stormy seas – such soul-shaking events as the Speaker Ban law, the Dixie Classic athletic scandal, and a lawsuit with the federal government over desegregation. His calm and gentlemanly demeanor masked his knack for negotiation and his talent as a behind-the-scenes political operator. He worked the phones like nobody else.

“For me, the University of North Carolina will always be Bill Friday’s university,” said Erskine Bowles, former UNC system president. “He quite literally poured the foundation for it, and then over a distinguished tenure that spanned 30 years, he helped build our public university system into the extraordinary economic and cultural engine it is for today. The positive impact this great man had on our university, our state and our nation is staggering.”

Despite turbulent times and meddling by political leaders, Friday ultimately managed to preserve the universities’ ability to control their own destiny in order to serve the state’s sons and daughters. He helped improve the universities as a beacon of opportunity in a poor state, distinguishing North Carolina from many of its Southern neighbors. Along the way, he was instrumental in the birth of major institutions such as Research Triangle Park.

In his later years, he was in many ways the state’s wise grandfather, its moral conscience and a role model for generations of other leaders. He was an outspoken voice against big money and corruption in college athletics, and pushed reform as co-founder of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

And he was a model of a life well-lived, keeping a busy schedule deep into his retirement. After his presidency, he took the helm of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, a philanthropic foundation that spread millions to education and other causes. For more than four decades, he was the affable host of the UNC-TV interview show “North Carolina People with William Friday,” and a comforting presence in North Carolinians’ living rooms each week.

Despite his stature, Friday was approachable, with a warm, folksy style and a twinkle in his eye. He treated everyone the same way, and people who barely knew him called him a mentor. On Saturday mornings, he was a fixture at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market; at Christmastime, Chapel Hillians eagerly awaited gifts of his homemade peanut brittle.

The personal touch

Friday was known for writing personal congratulatory notes to students and professors when they won awards. He had a way of connecting with people, and had a stunning memory for names and places. In the UNC offices, he insisted that his staff bend over backward to be courteous to visitors who walked in the door.

At one point, his top advisers wanted to put a sign on the parking space closest to his office that said, “Reserved for the President.”

He refused.

“We finally convinced him that we would put a sign there that said ‘State Cars Only’ because he had a state car,” said Art Padilla, a former vice president who worked with Friday for years. “He had an old Chevrolet, and so he would park there. … He wouldn’t have done it any other way.”

William Clyde Friday was born July 13, 1920, in Raphine, Va., the eldest son among five children of Mary Elizabeth Rowan and David Latham Friday, who reared their family in the small community of Dallas, near Gastonia.

Lath Friday worked for a manufacturer of textile machinery, and put a huge emphasis on education, pushing the children to stand out from the crowd, according to accounts in “William Friday,” the 1995 biography by William A. Link. Young Bill spent summers working in his grandfather’s general store in Virginia, or harvesting wheat and shearing sheep on nearby farms. Growing up, he was a debater and became obsessed with baseball, honing his talent as a catcher.

But the Depression weighed heavily on the families of Dallas and other mill towns, giving Friday a close view of poverty and desperation. The dark time coincided with his parents’ marital problems and eventual separation, as Friday entered Wake Forest College on a $50 scholarship that covered half his tuition.

To follow in his father’s textile manufacturing career, Friday transferred to N.C. State, then called N.C. State College of Agriculture and Engineering, where he tolerated textiles classes and became a popular student leader and sports editor at Technician, the student newspaper. He also met his future wife, Ida Howell, a student at Meredith College.

Friday was so well-known and liked that he was the first student asked to give the commencement speech at N.C. State, at the 1941 ceremony.

His leadership style emerged early. A friendly and empathetic sort, Friday managed to get people to talk to him and convey absolute integrity and trust, writes Link in his biography. His college friend, Paul Lehman, told the author that Friday had a way of “very quietly, without saying very much, letting people talk themselves into something, and then he would twist their arm at the last minute and get them to do something, without seeming to put any pressure on them.”

World War II, law school

Despite a short stint working at a DuPont plant in Virginia, a textile career would never materialize for Friday. He married Ida in 1942 and entered the Navy during World War II, and worked in an ammunition depot, a pressure-filled job managing high explosives.

After the war, Friday entered law school at UNC, where he and Ida were neighbors of future Gov. Terry Sanford and his wife. Friday finished law school in 1948, passed the bar, and soon found himself with a job offer – not in a law firm but as an assistant dean of students at the university in Chapel Hill.

It was a turning point, and would put Friday in close proximity to legendary UNC President Frank Porter Graham, a visionary with a personal touch. Friday often drove Graham and his lobbying team to the legislature in Raleigh, soaking up their strategy and knowledge on the trip.

He would later become assistant to Graham’s successor, Gordon Gray, who lacked Graham’s charisma but was a disciplined manager. Gray called Friday his “stout right arm.”

By 1956, Gray had departed, and there was a leadership vacuum in the administrative ranks. In 1956, Friday was named acting president of the university, a role he assumed would be temporary. He was 35. A year later, after his able handling of a crisis at Women’s College (now UNC Greensboro), Friday was given the job permanently.

It was an unlikely and rapid ascent. Less than a decade after law school, Friday was the president of the Consolidated University, which included State College in Raleigh, UNC in Chapel Hill and Women’s College in Greensboro. He would later admit to a reporter that he was scared to death.

His instinct was right, it seems. Powerful winds of change were blowing at UNC.

His tenure encompassed the McCarthy era, the civil rights era and the unrest of the Vietnam War. Problems he encountered were manifestations of the tumult of the times. Perhaps it was fate that Friday had once been in charge of naval ordnance because he encountered political dynamite around every corner.

In 1961, a point-shaving scandal involving State and North Carolina basketball players threw the Dixie Classic tournament into turmoil. The Dixie Classic was a holiday basketball tournament that pitted out-of-state opponents against the “Big Four” teams in North Carolina – Carolina, Duke, State and Wake Forest. It was hugely popular. Friday’s answer was swift and decisive – he informed the university’s trustees that he would cancel the entire event. Fans were furious, but Friday would not budge.

Also in the early 1960s, a huge fight erupted over a possible name change of State College to UNC-Raleigh. Friday had supported some versions of the name change, but the State faithful went nuts. In the end, the legislature changed it to N.C. State University at Raleigh. Friday later said throwing his support behind UNC-Raleigh was one of his biggest mistakes.

The Speaker Ban law

The Speaker Ban law passed by the legislature in 1963 presented Friday with one of the major challenges of his career. The law prohibited communists or anyone who had taken the Fifth Amendment from speaking at university campuses. Though Friday rushed to Raleigh on the day of the vote, he was too late to stop the law, which was evidence of a growing distrust of UNC, academia, and what critics in Raleigh called “arrogant liberals.”

But it was a huge blow to the university, angering faculty, endangering academic freedom, and threatening UNC’s accreditation. Friday wanted the law repealed, but that appeared impossible given the political climate and the anticommunist public sentiment. Ultimately, he backed a practical compromise to amend the law, so that the UNC board could set its own policies for speakers. He deftly worked through the political battle, which took years, and the law was eventually overturned in federal court.

The 1970s brought different challenges, including the restructuring of the system, which Friday originally opposed, putting him at odds with then-Gov. Bob Scott. The proposed 16-campus system would bring all public universities under one structure, but each campus also had its own board. Friday worried that the plan didn’t allow for enough central decision-making, and the system would become impossible to govern. A special session of the legislature expanded the system to 16 campuses, and Friday was named president.

It was a bumpy road, but in the long run, Friday made it work.

Desegregation

The most bruising battle was a decade-long fight against the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare over desegregation of the higher education system. The agency wanted to foster racial balance by eliminating duplicate programs and moving them among the mainly white campuses and the predominantly black universities.

Friday fought it. He was adamant that the state control how the plan was executed, but that put him in the difficult position of appearing to be against desegregation. The university eventually sued HEW, and the matter wasn’t settled until 1981 during the Reagan administration.

During those troublesome times, Friday was able to overcome challenges and work with political opposites to find common ground.

“His personality was not confrontational,” said C.D. Spangler Jr., who succeeded Friday as UNC system president. “He was direct, telling the truth in a way that could be understood by the people of North Carolina.”

The university’s freedom – from interference from Raleigh and from Washington – was paramount to Friday. It led Padilla, the former vice president, to refer to his former boss as a “Statue of Liberty” figure.

In 1986, in an interview with The News & Observer upon his retirement, Friday said, “If I had to single out the one accomplishment that we’ve all done together, it is that we’ve kept the university free. It is not beholden in any way to any political or structured kind of relationship. … That’s because, while the university is in the political process, it is not of it, and I’ve worked very hard to keep it that way. The university stands there today completely capable of examining any controversial question, dealing with any great social issue, working to improve the state and all of its people.”

A staunch believer in the power of education to lift people from poverty and make them good citizens, Friday was a crusader for state support for universities and affordability for families.

In recent years, he was outspoken against tuition increases. In a 2010 interview with The News & Observer to mark his 90th birthday, Friday said the cost of college is a major issue for UNC students of today. “The strength of this place has been that every child in North Carolina could dream of going to one of these institutions if they did their work,” he said. “Now, the cost is eroding that dramatically.”

Gene Nichol, former UNC law dean, said no one had done more to make sure the university and the state empowered low-income North Carolinians.

“President Friday has instilled in us, his disciples, a defining sense of public obligation,” Nichol said. “He has been a one-man, multigenerational, anti-poverty crusade. I’ll never forget the first time I heard him say to a group of my law students, ‘A million North Carolinians living in poverty have paid to subsidize your education. Now you’re going to want to think about what you’ll do to pay them back.’ ”

An active retirement

Decades after he stepped down, he was a sounding board for decision-makers on the issues of the day. University leaders would visit his living room to seek counsel before a big decision.

Just last week, The Washington Post published an interview with Friday, who talked about the dangerous compromises in college sports. He was blunt about the academic and athletic scandal that had enveloped his university.

“The University of North Carolina has suffered a humiliation unlike anything it ever had before,” he told the Post.

Yet he wasn’t ready to give up on reform.

“There are thousands of alumni who look upon what happened with serious concern,” he said in the interview. “And I don’t believe they’re going to tolerate it. … People don’t want their lifetimes to be measured by how much their football team won or lost. There is something valuable they want to have written on that intellectual tombstone when the time comes. And it will come.”

Gov. Bev Perdue called Friday a true renaissance man.

“His dedication and service to North Carolina and monumental impact on our state cannot be overstated,” she said in a statement. “There has been no person in North Carolina’s history who more fully exemplified how one individual can, year after year, make a tremendous difference. It’s only fitting that today, University Day at UNC, that the Carolina angels called him home.”

Friday’s health had declined in recent years, but he kept a remarkably busy schedule. In 2008, he suffered a minor heart attack, and in 2009, he had surgery to replace a heart valve. He was hospitalized in critical condition in May, when he received a permanent pacemaker. But not too long after leaving the hospital, he resumed his weekly UNC-TV talk show.

Recently, Friday was asked to serve on a blue-ribbon advisory committee that’s working on a five-year strategy for the UNC system. He was said to be excited at the prospect, but was unable to attend the first meeting of the panel late last month.

He is survived by his wife, Ida, and daughters Frances and Mary. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Betsy.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete, but a public memorial service will be held sometime next week.

Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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