From the Editor

Drescher: William Friday led with grace and humility

October 12, 2012 

Jeff Michael was a law student in Chapel Hill 20 years ago when he had a nagging feeling that practicing law would not be the right career for him.

A friend advised him to talk with a law school grad who spent his career in higher education – Bill Friday.

Michael wrote Friday, who had retired as UNC system president but was working on other projects at UNC. A day or two later, Michael received a call saying Friday wanted to meet with him.

Michael expected a short meeting. They talked for an hour and a half.

“He really did believe in young people,” Michael, now the director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, said in an interview.

Friday always was willing to give of himself, especially to people younger than he. Given that he was 92 when he died, that was just about everyone.

Michael had no way of knowing that his career as a non-lawyer would be intertwined with Friday. A decade later, Michael served as executive director of the William C. Friday Fellows program.

The program was created in 1994 when some North Carolinians, including the Blumenthal family of Charlotte, started the leadership development program and named it after Friday.

Every two years, 20 people from across the state are chosen to be Friday Fellows. The fellows spend six long weekends learning about leadership in the style of Friday – with “integrity, intention and inclusion,” as the program states. The program has graduated more than 160 Friday Fellows, including me.

A name that ‘would rise above’

Clay Thorp was the program’s first director and was present at its inception. The founders wanted to name their leadership program after a great North Carolinian.

“We brainstormed a number of options but there was really only one person that was suitable and that was Bill Friday,” said Thorp, a Triangle venture capitalist who is the brother of UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp. “Every name we came up with would have been a polarizing name for one constituency or another. His was the only name that would rise above that.”

Thorp worked closely with Friday in developing the program. “He was a great listener,” Thorp said. “He had an uncanny ability to engage people in his vision.” In doing so, his vision might become their vision. Said Thorp: “There was a persuasive part (about Friday) that was unique.”

Anyone who went to college at one of the UNC campuses from 1956 to 1986 was, in a way, a Friday Fellow. In walking across the 16 campuses, Friday made eye contact, smiled and was approachable. What a boost it gave me as a college newspaper editor in Chapel Hill to answer the phone and have Mr. Friday offer encouragement, a practice he continued three decades after I was a student.

A passion for North Carolina

Friday burned with passion for North Carolina. He grew up in Gaston County, west of Charlotte, when this was a poor state. He was educated at N.C. State and UNC law school, and believed education could change the state and its people. He believed the state had an obligation to offer the best schools possible to all residents.

Friday spent almost his entire life in North Carolina and believed in its people – even the ones who disagreed with him. He was a powerful listener and an inclusive leader. He was always a gentleman. Despite his deeply held beliefs, he could be friends with those on the other side.

“Somehow he had the ability to separate his work and the things he believed in from the person” with whom he disagreed, Michael said.

“He was just infused with a deep dose of old-fashioned decency.”

Over the years, Friday was in the middle of some big fights – the killing of the Dixie Classic basketball tournament, the integration of the universities, the fight over creating the ECU med school. He never let the heated emotions of the moment get the best of him. He led with grace and humility.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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