Stancill: Bill Friday's final resting place is among friends

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2012 

  • Memorial service A public memorial service will be at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall at 10 a.m. Wednesday for William C. Friday. Tickets will be distributed at 8:30 a.m.; doors open at 9. More information on the service, 11A
  • More information More on the service The program will be broadcast live by UNC-TV and repeated at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Seating is limited. Overflow seating with video will be available in Gerrard Hall on campus. Public parking is limited. The Rams Head parking deck on Ridge Road will be open, with free shuttles to Memorial.

Higher education reporter Jane Stancill has written about Bill Friday for The News & Observer since the mid-1990s.

CHAPEL HILL -- On a sweltering July day in 1997, I ran into Bill Friday in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery.

He was there, alone, making sure everything was just right for the burial of his old friend, CBS newsman Charles Kuralt. I was there to learn about “the college graveyard,” as it was once called, the final resting place of university presidents, professors, townsfolk and slaves.

The cemetery at the edge of campus had long been booked, but Kuralt, a UNC alumnus who got his start at the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper, turned to the one man who could make a phone call and find him a plot: Bill Friday. He had written to Friday just before he died, asking for a final favor.

Friday read the letter at Kuralt’s memorial service. “I am only beginning to truly appreciate the love I feel for Chapel Hill,” he read. “It is a moving place, the more I think about it.”

On that July day, the scent of gardenias hung in the thick air. Friday checked on the spot that he had secured for Kuralt, under a crape myrtle.

“He’s among friends,” Friday said. All around, tombstones were carved with names familiar to anyone who’s been to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus – Venable, Coates, Carmichael, Berryhill, MacNider, Coker, Teague.

On Tuesday, the beloved UNC system president was laid to rest there, too. His tidy grave was covered with a spray of yellow roses and sunflowers; a small American flag was stuck into the earth. Next to it was the marker for his daughter, who died in 2002. “Our Betsy,” the stone said.

A single mourner sat on the nearby low stone wall, handkerchief in hand.

I stood there and thought about the day I first met Friday. It was October 1988. I was a graduate student, writing my thesis about a literacy project that was near and dear to Friday’s heart. It was modeled on a program in Kentucky, and funded by the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, where Friday was executive director.

I was more than a little nervous about interviewing the great Bill Friday. But he greeted me warmly and put me at ease. He talked about the project, which melded preschool for poor children and reading instruction for their unemployed parents.

Friday had been to a graduation ceremony for the program, and he was inspired to see, once again, how the power of education can pull people out of poverty. Some of the graduates had no indoor plumbing or telephones, but they had gained some education.

“The whole business had caused them to find a new lease on the future,” Friday told me back then. “They had gained self-respect. They were achievers. They had done it. And that meant they could now go and compete.”

$1 million tribute

On Tuesday, the Kenan Trust announced a $1 million grant to UNC’s law school in honor of Friday’s 12-year service to the charitable foundation. The money will be used for student scholarships – a fitting tribute to a man who was utterly dedicated to low tuition and opportunity for North Carolinians.

Hours after the private burial service Tuesday, the old cemetery was quiet. A man walked his dog. A chipmunk skittered across some rocks. A backpack leaned against a marker, no doubt abandoned by a student during a late-night detour.

The stones tell the story of the university. The first is that of student George Clarke, buried in 1798. There are graves of unknown slaves. An obelisk pays homage to Wilson Caldwell and other African-Americans who spent their lives toiling for the university.

A final melting pot

Among the dead are blacksmiths and druggists, cooks and laundresses, hotel proprietors and mayors – the people who brought life and commerce to Chapel Hill.

Nearby are university leaders, including President Edward Kidder Graham and his successor, Marvin Hendrix Stacy, both of whom died in the great flu epidemic. A revered UNC president from a later era, Frank Porter Graham, was a mentor to Friday.

There’s Louis Round Wilson, the librarian; Paul Green, the playwright; and Horace Williams, the philosophy professor. Bandleader Kay Kyser is there; his wife, Georgia’s epitaph quotes the love song lyrics, “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

Fifteen years ago, as Friday prepared for Kuralt’s funeral, he gave me an impromptu tour of the historic cemetery. As we meandered through the paths, he pointed at the gravestones, calling out UNC’s greats by name.

Finally, he stopped at an empty square. It was the reserved Friday family plot, where he and his wife, Ida, would spend eternity.

Among friends.

Stancill: 919-829-4559 or jstancill@newsobserver.com

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