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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Friends thank Friday for building a better North Carolina

Mary Friday Leadbetter speaks at the memorial service for her father, William C. Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina. In background, from left are, C. D. Spangler, former UNC president, UNC President Tom Ross,  Gov. Bev Perdue, and former Gov. Jim Hunt.

Some 20 years ago, C.D. Spangler Jr. was driving through Dallas, N.C., the boyhood home of Bill Friday, when he decided he wanted to see the high school where Friday had graduated decades before becoming the longest-serving president of the multi-campus University of North Carolina.

Well wishers enter Friday’s service in Memorial Hall on Oct. 17. At right is his portrait.

Spangler stopped first at a roadside store for a Coca Cola and a pack of Lance crackers, where he came across a group of older men who said they knew Friday.

One told him that Friday had been a catcher playing Legion ball and was once good enough to make the majors. “He paused and he said, ‘You know, it’s a shame. If Bill had stuck it out in baseball, he could have made something of himself.’”

During the Oct. 17 memorial service for Friday, Spangler drew a connection between the skills Friday honed as a university president with the abilities required of a good catcher.

As a catcher, you are loaded down with heavy equipment and a face mask as you squat down waiting for the pitcher to throw a ball at you at 90 miles an hour, while the batter swings a piece of wood inches from your head, Spangler said. You are the only player to see the entire field, and the only one involved on every play.

“That’s what Bill Friday did as the president of the university,” Spangler said. “He saw the whole of North Carolina, and he knew that education was the only way out of poverty for our people.”

It was that vision, that passion for service that put Friday in a league of his own as an education leader, Spangler said.

“I have never, ever seen anyone even in the same ballpark with Bill,” he said. “He simply was the most significant educational leader in North Carolina in the 20th century.”

Gov. Beverly Perdue said no single leader in the state had made a bigger difference in the lives of people year after year.

“Dr. Friday was North Carolina,” Perdue said. “He lived his life with joy and spirit until the very end. I thought of him as that magical master of all of the best of us, of all our hopes and our dreams.”

Former Gov. Jim Hunt called Friday “the greatest builder” with big, audacious goals for North Carolina.

“He cared about all of our people and he wanted them all to have equal opportunity to develop their talents to the fullest, and that included people of all races, men and women, new immigrants and the poor,” Hunt said.

He fought for equal opportunity because he knew it was right, Hunt said, but he also understood that “the work of building North Carolina into the greatest place under the coat of heaven would take all of us.”

James Johnson, William Rand Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Management at Carolina, said he valued Friday’s wise counsel and cherished him as a friend.

During their annual Christmas Eve get-together, they talked about the pressing matters of the moment – and they exchanged gifts.

Friday always gave Johnson homemade peanut brittle, and Johnson always gave his friend and mentor a tie. During the year, Friday would call to let Johnson know on which episode of “North Carolina People” he would wear the tie (Friday was the show’s host for more than 40 years).

“It has been said that the most important single influence in the life of a person is another person who is worthy of emulation,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, ladies and gentlemen, William Friday was the quintessential role model.”

He was able to “move from the suites to the streets without losing a beat,” Johnson said.

It didn’t matter to him whether you had $10 or $10 million in your bank account or whether you had no degree or a Ph.D., Johnson said, “he would always give you his undivided attention and he made you feel like the most important person in the world at that particular moment. Mr. Friday was a sincere and caring man.”

Journalist Charlie Rose said he thought about Friday a little differently.

“You think of Bill Friday as the president of the university,” Rose said. “I think of him as the host of a very distinguished interview program. … It was so inspiring to me, that at 92, he was still thinking about his next program.”

Rose said he met Friday before he had his own television program on PBS. “Somehow, he made me understand that what you can dream, what you can imagine, you can do,” Rose said.

Just as the state’s governors and legislators did, Rose received calls from Friday through the years, urging him to take tackle issues Friday remained passionate about – from fighting poverty to reforming college athletics.

More than anything, Rose said, Friday made him understand that everyone’s work – and everyone’s life – is important.

“There was a wise man who once said to look ahead to the end of your life and ask yourself whom I want there. Ask yourself what do I want them to say about me. And then, for the rest of your life, try to make it happen,” Rose said.

Friday had answered those questions by living a life of service and friendship.

“It is this university that is his monument,” Rose said. When Friday took it over during the second half of the 20th century, he crafted it into one of the finest universities in the nation. “From the Atlantic to the Appalachians, this is his legacy. This is what he came to do, and this is what he did,” Rose said.

Virginia Taylor, Friday’s special assistant, recalled Friday telling her on her fifth anniversary of university service that he looked forward to celebrating the 10th year with her. That’s when he confirmed what Taylor said she already knew: “Bill Friday was never going to retire and he was certainly never going to stop working to make this world a better place.”

As a benediction, Taylor read one of Friday’s most often-quoted passages from George Bernard Shaw: “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

That precious torch, she said, has been passed to us.

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The Trustees of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust have announced a grant of $1 million to the endowment of the University’s School of Law in memory and honor of William C. Friday, who was an alumnus of the school.