Jim Jenkins

The might of great Bill Aycock


He was, by the time I got to know him, somewhat hampered physically by old age, but his mind was still razor sharp. When I called Bill Aycock a few years back, probably to talk about the infamous Speaker Ban law of the early 1960s, he came up with details decades old, but with a freshness that made them seem they’d just come off the vine. So he was until the very end, friends said, when death came Saturday at the age of 99 in Chapel Hill.

A prominent Raleigh lawyer adds to that testimony. He’d been a student of Aycock’s when in law school (Aycock was regarded as one of the greatest teachers in the history of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school), and ran into him at some university social occasion 30 years later, after Aycock had pretty much retired. He asked if he could come and see his old teacher about an estate he was managing.

“Tell me now,” Aycock said. And the lawyer went over the particulars. Aycock then ran down the procedures and law appropriate to the issue, right then and there.

“I handled it just as he said,” the lawyer says today. “He was exactly right, of course.”

And so it went for decades on. Five times Aycock won the law school’s top teaching honor, and likely would have collected it 10 times more except for his own modesty.

But Bill Aycock was to leave a legacy beyond that of great teacher. He was named in 1957 as chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and out of that service, 1957-64, would come to be viewed as a legendary leader in the university’s modern history.

UNC system President William Friday, who died in 2012, generally avoided search committees and corporate head hunters, and simply pulled Aycock off the law school faculty and made him chancellor. “I knew,” Friday told me once, “that he was a lion.”

Aycock was indeed imposing as an intellect, though unassuming. He also was possessed of uncommon courage when it came to dealing with special interests within and without the university.

Take, for example, his handling of a point-shaving scandal in the once-fanatically popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament. Friday ultimately ended the Classic, and had to withstand the heat.

On the Chapel Hill campus, Aycock suspended a star player because of evidence he had taken money from a gambler. A student protest ensued at Aycock’s home, whereupon Aycock lectured the students about the importance of honesty and integrity. They stood and applauded him.

Aycock then did another brave thing. He hired a little-known assistant basketball coach from Kansas as the Tar Heels’ head coach. It was intended to signal a righting of priorities at a school where winning had become too important.

Dean Smith always appreciated the fact that Bill Aycock defended him from the start, even after he was hanged in effigy.

At around this same time, Aycock was pressured by some athletics boosters to dismiss a football coach with whom they were dissatisfied.

This story came directly from Friday, so we shall let him tell it as he did a number of times: “The boosters or whatever they called themselves then talked to Bill and told him they wanted the coach fired. He said, ‘I’ll have a press conference at 3 o’clock.’ So at 3 o’clock, he comes out and says, ‘I want to announce I have given our coach a three-year contract extension. Thank you.’”

But Aycock did his best work, perhaps, after the state legislature rammed through a “Speaker Ban law” to prohibit communists from speaking on public campuses. It was a profoundly outrageous infringement on free speech later overturned by the courts. But Aycock didn’t wait.

He and Friday went on the offensive immediately in 1963. He called the law an “insult” and in a statement guaranteed to anger every member of the General Assembly added that “it would be far better to close the university than to let a cancer eat away at the spirit of inquiry and learning.”

In effect, he’d given lawmakers a public paddling and ordered them to stand in the corner with dunce caps on. They didn’t like it, but even some who’d gone along with passage of the law knew better than to wade into any debate with Bill Aycock. In time, of course, Aycock’s response became symbolic of his legacy: profound courage, strength, and an unwavering determination to do the right thing even when it might not be the popular thing. The best of his students learned those lessons well and are carrying on in North Carolina to this day.

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