Jenkins: At William Friday's core, students mattered most

October 17, 2012 

Traveling with him, as I did some in these last years, was rather like being in an entourage for a head of state. Except that this head of state had no use for imperial trappings, was embarrassed by flattery and bowed graciously to everyone he met, young and old, rich and poor, prominent and humble.

He would grin that twinkling grin, extend his hand, and say, “Hello there, I’m William Friday.” Inevitably, people would respond, almost with a little embarrassment, and say, “Oh, we know who you are, President Friday!”

And they did, of course. Everyone did. Bill Friday was chosen as president of the University of North Carolina (now called a “system”) when he was 36 years old. For the next 30 years, he built that system just as a master carpenter would construct a sturdy house. It was built to last forever. And so, we thought, was he, as he continued to make a speech here and there, plan his “North Carolina People” television show, meet with prominent state and national leaders even as he passed 90.

And then, last week, he was gone at 92, peacefully at home, as he slept.

A longstanding family connection (for which no explanation is necessary at this point) blessed me with his friendship for all my adult life. He was the greatest man I ever knew, and I’ll defend this as well: He may have been the greatest person North Carolina has ever produced. The rest of the accolades that have come his way in obituaries and commentaries, about his influence on higher education ... they’re all true. That he advised presidents of the United States .. .true. That he was offered the presidency of many of the best public and private universities in this country in the course of his tenure in Chapel Hill ... true.

Sometimes, people of great achievement wear those accomplishments like medals. They come to expect a certain deference.

If anything, Bill Friday put the medals in a drawer and was embarrassed by anyone who flattered him. And though as UNC president he might have enjoyed some regal trappings if he’d wanted them, his office was modest. Once, when a state car was delivered for his use, he saw the model was called an “Executive,” and he sent it back. “Somebody,” he said, “might think that was pretentious.”

The most important thing to him on his first day as president and as president emeritus on his last day on this Earth was the individual student, especially those who were small-town kids, perhaps never before on a college campus. He wanted that kid to have all the opportunities that education had provided for a schoolboy catcher named Bill Friday when he was growing up in the foothills of Gaston County.

Walking through the Chapel Hill campus, or in Asheville or Boone or Elizabeth City, he loved stopping and talking to students: Where are you from? What do you want to do? Are you the first in your family to go to college? Good luck!

Some wrote to him. He wrote back. And long after he’d departed that high office, and he and “my Ida” had moved to their modest home next to the campus, the kids would just come by.

I never saw him mad, in the way that most people get mad, red in the face and all that. But if he heard a story about a student being ill-treated, by a professor or by some glitch in a university administration on any campus, a call was made and action was swift. “Remember,” I heard him tell one administrator on such a call, “we serve the students, and it’s not the other way around. If they fail, we have failed.” I couldn’t see the guy on the other end of the line, but I’ll bet he was sitting up straight.

That opportunity Bill had, and that he wanted others to have, was important enough for him to break ranks with successors and fight ever-increasing tuition rates. He broke as well in fighting the expansion of big-time athletics. And if lawmakers flirted with stifling the free speech of professors or students, they’d draw a mighty rebuke.

He was righteous. He was compassionate. When it came to his convictions, he was made of steel. In raising his three daughters and being married to Ida for 70 years, he was as soft as a teddy bear. As a friend ... there was no stronger ally in happiness or in mourning.

The emptiness left by his passing with be with us for a long time. But a generous supply of glorious memories is full indeed.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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