William Friday, who cherished the UNC system, dies on University Day

ablythe@newsobserver.comOctober 12, 2012 

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UNC faculty, staff, students and friends offered flowers on the steps of UNC's Old Well Friday, Oct. 12, 2012 in honor of the passing away of UNC's long time former Chancellor and UNC System president Bill Friday earlier that morning. Bill Friday passed away on the observance of UNC's University Day, this year honoring the 219th year after the founding of the university in 1793.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

— The poignancy of the moment was not lost on those who came Friday to place flowers at the Old Well, the iconic landmark on the University of North Carolina campus. William Friday, a man who dedicated his life’s work to the higher education of this state, died on the very day the university celebrates its beginnings.

For many, it was akin to three of the first five U.S. presidents – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe – dying on the Fourth of July.

On a day when Friday typically would have been taking part in the pomp commemorating the laying of the first cornerstone of the UNC system’s oldest building, there was a solemn air.

There was a moment of silence during a late-morning University Day ceremony at Memorial Hall. Then there were the many recollections – both somber and extolling – for a driven, but humble, man who advocated for a public education system that served the state he loved.

“He simply was always that force behind the scenes,” said Willis Whichard, a lawyer and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus who has been prominent in the state’s political and educational arenas. “He loved the state, he knew its people, he knew where the talent was and was simply this force moving the talents to get the right things.”

Friday retired as president of the entire UNC system in 1986, but for many on the Chapel Hill campus that was just a short walk from his home, he never fully walked away from the work.

Jan Boxill, chairwoman of the UNC-CH faculty, said she called on Friday frequently, even in recent months. Both she and Friday had an interest in the role athletics should play on a college campus, and there were worries about the current problems tied to that.

“We’ve lost an amazing individual that many of us felt comfortable to always go to and talk with,” Boxill said. “His concern was the arms race and athletics, and that’s my concern.”

In UNC’s DNA

Chancellor Holden Thorp kept in close touch with Friday long before Thorp became the chief administrator of a campus that has experienced tumult lately.

The two often met in Thorp’s office and bandied about many ideas and principles. Thorp, a scientist at his core, described Friday’s values as ones that “had been incorporated into the DNA of the university.”

“The loss of Bill Friday is significant whenever it occurs,” Thorp told a group of reporters and TV news crews at the steps of the Old Well on Friday. “The fact that it happened on University Day just makes it all the easier to remember all that he’s done for the university.”

Bruce Cairns, director of the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center and a UNC-CH professor of surgery and microbiology, said the university had been defined by Friday and his leadership.

“He has guided it into the modern era,” Cairns said. “He laid the foundation that has allowed us to be this great public research service university.”

‘An icon of good sense’

Friday, many recalled, was a champion of the common man in an uncommon way.

“He was just an icon of good sense and integrity – and for the ability to give people a chance to get an education,” said Mary Whitten, a research associate for the UNC-CH computer science program.

And though the man is gone, many at the University Day ceremony in Chapel Hill on Friday said his voice will live on – through those he mentored and the education policies he worked tirelessly to shape.

But the man who was always willing to lend an ear, offer a thought or put people in touch with each other will be missed, they said.

“On a heartbreaking morning, fittingly University Day, North Carolina has lost its first, best and greatest citizen,” said Gene Nichol, a UNC-CH law professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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