William Friday left lasting and historic mark on NC State, university system and countless North Carolinians

October 12, 2012
By Chris Saunders

William C. Friday ’41, president emeritus of the UNC System and a longtime supporter of NC State, has died.

Friday, who was 92, led the 16-member system through a time of tremendous change in his 30-year tenure as president of the UNC system. He oversaw the system during campus integration, battled with the state legislature over academic freedom to overturn the Vietnam-era speaker ban law, and for decades, was on the forefront of speaking out about academics being compromised for the sake of athletics.

fridayportrait_smAlthough Friday is known for his time as UNC system president, he held strong connections to NC State, where he graduated in 1941 with a textiles degree. He was given an honorary degree from the university in 1991 and always celebrated being a Wolfpacker.

“NC State took me from high school with 12 members in the graduating class and gave me a sense of direction, self-confidence and self-fulfillment, and I’ve never lost it,” Friday said in a 2003 interview with NC State magazine. “That institution gave me something that has been so much a part of my life that there’s no way in the world I could repay it. But I can try as best I am able.”

Friday was an emeritus member of the Watauga Club and former chair of the NC State University Foundation and the Development Board. He was also a vocal champion of alumni having a special place to call their own when they came back to campus. Friday was honorary co-chair of the fund-raising campaign that led to the construction of the Dorothy and Roy Park Alumni Center, a $20 million, 60,000-square-foot on the shores of Lake Raleigh in Centennial Campus that has been the Alumni Association’s home since 2006.

“Bill Friday was a transformational leader in public higher education.” NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson said. “He was known as someone who always put others first. I, along with countless other leaders in higher education, benefited from his wise advice and counsel. Through his distinguished career, he modeled public service at its best, marked by integrity, courtesy, humility and perseverance. He set the standard for the value and importance of education in this state. Thanks to his legacy, North Carolina will continue to be a leader in education.“

In 1941, Friday delivered the traditional class president’s address on graduation day, giving a message that would prove prophetic about his own role in North Carolina higher education.

“The progress that has been made at State College in the past can be attributed in a great part to the concerted efforts of the graduates before us,” he said. “You and I are going to be held responsible in a great measure for the growth and progress of this institution for years to come.” At the ceremony, the gift that would allow the construction of Reynolds Coliseum was announced — and 16 years later Friday was inaugurated as the UNC System president at ceremony in Reynolds.

In the 2003 interview, Friday said he asked questions of himself in the middle of the night: “Did I reach out as far as I could? Did I serve as many people as I could? Did I give back as much as I could, and did I do this with conviction?….If you can say those things, answer those things, then you’ll have made a difference in this world. I think that’s why we’re all here.”

Friday was born in 1920 in Dallas, N.C., in Gaston County, the son of a salesman for a textile-machinery company. During the Great Depression, when the textile industry in North Carolina fell on hard times, Friday delivered two newspapers and worked weekends and summers in a textile machinery shop to help his family. The young Friday also showed a talent for baseball and toured with the first American Legion team in Cherryville in 1937.

Friday, center, as senior class president at NC State in 1941

Friday, center, as senior class president at NC State in 1941

After high school, he started college at Wake Forest, but transferred to NC State after a year at the urging of his father, who believed the technical training at NC State would benefit him more. At NC State, Friday quickly became a leader on the campus of 2,100 students. He was elected senior class president and was sports editor for the Technician. He met Meredith College student Ida Howell on a blind date in 1940, and the two married in 1942.

“The greatest debt I owe to NC State is that it was there that I met Ida,” he said in the 2003 interview.

After graduating for NC State, Friday worked briefly at DuPont and then returned to Raleigh to become NC State’s chief dormitory assistant. After he received his Naval commission in 1942, he became plant operations manager for the Naval Ammunition depot in Norfolk, Va. The G.I. Bill allowed him to enroll in law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He graduated in 1948, and the dean of students at UNC-Chapel Hill offered him a job as assistant on the recommendation of NC State administrators. From then on, his career was in university administration.

Friday became an assistant to UNC President Gordon Gray. When Gray left his position for a Washington, D.C., post, that gave way to a contested public debate over the future of what some saw as a confusing consolidated university system. Friday was named acting president of the system in March 1956 during that turmoil when he was 35 years old. Though he indicated that he only expected to hold the post a few months, he was chosen to permanently be system president.

Friday’s tenure saw its share of criticism. He was part of the decision to end the Dixie Classic amid a point-shaving scandal involving NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill basketball players. And he supported the efforts to change the name of NC State to the University of North Carolina at Raleigh — which infuriated the NC State community.

“There were interesting days and exciting days, but they’d make an old man out of you if you weren’t careful,” he said in the 2003 interview. He later acknowledged that the name change would have been a mistake.

History judges Friday’s time at the helm of North Carolina higher education as highly successful. He installed strong leaders, like John T. Caldwell as chancellor at NC State, and was known for stepping back and giving them their own space to perform the job.

“Bill Friday embodied all that is good about North Carolina: kindness, modesty, integrity, diligence, curiosity, friendliness, faith in education, a sincere concern for every person whatever their station in life and, behind his mild demeanor, a fierce determination to make our state all that it can be and should be,” former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. said in a statement. “Our strong, high-tech economy is due in large measure to his leadership.  Long after he is gone, his spirit will live on in the University of North Carolina System.  He was a product of it.  He built it. He loved it. It will be his eternal monument.”

Friday retired in 1989 from his position as system president when he was 65, but he didn’t stay retired very long. He became chairman of the N.C. Poverty Project and the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. He was the founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and was a member of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, as well as leading initiatives in the state dealing with literacy and health care.

In 2001, the Centennial Campus Center for Educational Innovation at NC State was renamed the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. Known more commonly as the Friday Institute, the center conducts research, develops educational resources and provides professional development programs for educators across the state to better understand assessment, testing practices and technology in the 21st century classroom. Friday was an honorary chair on the center’s honorary national advisory board.

friday-w-kids_sm1At NC State, he was awarded the Watauga Medal, the highest non-academic honor bestowed by the university, in 1987, and won the Menscer Cup. He was named College of Textiles Alumnus of the Year in 2007.

For the last 20 years, Friday had hosted the show North Carolina People, where he interviewed politicians, athletes, entertainers and writers from across the state. He had suffered a minor heart attack in 2008 but had been in generally good health and continued taping the show, which ran on UNC-TV.

North Carolina People reflected his strong belief that North Carolina was the embodiment of America, something he echoed in the 2003 interview with NC State magazine.

“I say to people, go into the heartland of the country, come into North Carolina,” he said. “Let me take you out here and meet some farmers, people who grow Christmas trees, and you’ll understand what the real America’s like. These are people to whom words like honor, decency, fair play, character, integrity, religion all have very intense personal meanings, and they believe this is the strength of the state. I’ve always had faith. I’ve never mistrusted that base.”

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