William Friday embodied the best of the state he loved

October 12, 2012 

Obit UNC Friday

In this Oct. 6, 2011 photo released by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, former UNC University System President William Friday stands during the inauguration of Tom Ross as the 17th president of the UNC System, in Greensboro, N.C. 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, Oct. 12, 2012. He was 92. (AP Photo/University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, David Wilson)

DAVID WILSON — University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill/AP

Thirty or 40 years later, the story still made William Friday smile.

He’d been president of what is now the University of North Carolina system for 10 years or so, and one night a knock came on the front door of the stately president’s home on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. A young man fresh from the mountains, newly enrolled and the first in his family to go to college, was standing there.

“Are you President Friday?” he asked.

“Yes, I am William Friday.”

“Well, my Daddy told me when I got here that I should go see Bill Friday.”

The president invited him in, and advised him as to his course over the next four years.

That was the essence of William Friday. In 30 years as president of UNC, he set the course for many, as the North Star of public higher education in his home state and in many ways in the nation. And the North Star as well for students, for administrators he mentored, and on occasion for presidents of the United States.

Yet it was not his prominence or his influence or even his wisdom that made him the state’s most significant and beloved public leader of his generation. It was those qualities combined with his genuine modesty, his sincere interest in the people of this state, whether they were governors or peach growers at the farmers market. Friday treated all people the same.

When he traveled, he would be approached by people from all stations in life. Some had come to know him, perhaps, from his gracious public television show, “North Carolina People.” And they would talk years later about the time they met Bill Friday.

That honesty and sincerity were matched with steely righteousness. Friday was in front, leading and fighting, when the state confronted racial injustice, affronts to freedom of speech, discrimination against women.

Time and again, he stood against attempts in the General Assembly to raise costs to students, or to infringe on the university’s freedom. He believed in the power of education to transform individual lives, and in turn to illuminate the path to progress.

He was a leader for the ages. Personally, he embodied the best of what North Carolina was, and could hope to be.

And long after he had moved from that president’s home to his modest house near the campus, the door was still open.

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