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A year of losses, Friday, Griffith, Scruggs and Watson

December 20, 2012 

They were so very different, each had a particular kind of genius and their personalities ranged from gregarious to quiet. All were raised among foothills or mountains, in modest circumstances, and earned everything they ever had. They went to the top of their chosen callings, but retained genuine modesty.

None had a life without sadness. In thinking about four absent friends, fellow North Carolinans who died this year, a sobering realization was that all of them lost children before their time, surely the most grievous suffering that can come to a parent. That gave pause, with the tragedy that struck the mothers and fathers of Newtown, Conn., less than a week ago.

Now, as Christmas nears, it’s a time of reflection on the loss of loved ones and old compadres in the last year, and it happens to be an especially sad year for that process among those in this state who knew any or all of these four men: Bill Friday, founding president of what is now the University of North Carolina system and arguably the most important North Carolinian of the 20th century; Andy Griffith, whose namesake television series may be the best comedy ever made; Earl Scruggs, certainly the most gifted banjo player in that instrument’s history; and Doc Watson, guitar virtuoso and singer.

They knew each other and liked each other, these fellows. Different “threads” they were in a way, but together they added color and depth and meaning to the quilt of North Carolina. And upon their deaths after long lives (Griffith was the youngest, at 86) they were celebrated for accomplishments that will be remembered and revered for as long as the University of North Carolina is around, for as long as television exists, for as long as there is music.

And North Carolinians who take the time during the holidays to think about these grand lives will immerse themselves, really, in the history of this state, over the last half of the 20th century. It’s a chance as well to contemplate what it was about them, what traits they may have shared, that led them to such admired levels of achievement.

For Friday, education in Wake Forest, Raleigh and Chapel Hill sparked a life’s work. Coming out of a county, Gaston, where textile mills dominated the culture, he saw from his own experience what a difference higher schooling could make, and thus his course was set for the next 60 years. He helped individuals and institutions, the first to have the courage to dream the dream and the second to see that it was fulfilled.

He had a way with people. Students were astonished when he remembered their names, sometimes years later, after one meeting.

Griffith grew up in Mount Airy, close by the mountains, and helped push his own dream along with a public education in Chapel Hill. Some who knew him believed he was driven by the hurt of hearing someone call him “white trash” in his youth, but who knows? He made a difference in North Carolina in a way that didn’t occur to most people: Instead of playing a “hick” sheriff from the state on his TV show, he lost the country-fried accent early on to convey dignity.

Scruggs was gifted (and nurtured his gift with hours of practice), but took nothing for granted. He worked in a mill until he was sure he could make a living at music. And he stood for what he believed even if it was unpopular in the “country music community,” evidenced by his performances with Joan Baez and statements against the war in Vietnam.

And then there was Doc. Blind since early childhood, he was taught independence by his parents and came to the school for the blind in Raleigh. He played in small bands until he was discovered in his 30s and his impossible guitar-playing and encyclopedic knowledge of old-time music took him to stardom. All his life, he stayed in Deep Gap and created a world-famous music festival named for his late son, Merle.

Those who called them “friend” typically were of long acquaintance. Each possessed a degree of character and strength that helped them to weather criticism which all faced along the way. Each was shaped by small-town values, values, we hope, that are still being taught in the communities of North Carolina.

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

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