CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — State leaders and University of North Carolina officials gathered Wednesday to honor the life and legacy of longtime UNC President William C. "Bill" Friday, who died last week.
Friday headed the UNC system from 1956 to 1986, shepherding it through a tumultuous era of civil rights, assimilation of more than a dozen campuses and rapid growth. Even after his retirement, he continually provided a clarion call for access to higher education and for stricter control of college athletics.
"(His was) a life not just well served but lived in as extraordinary a manner as any our state has ever seen," UNC President Tom Ross said during a memorial service on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
Friday believed that North Carolina's constitution made quality education a birthright for people statewide, Gov. Beverly Perdue said.
"He simply believed in education," Perdue said. "He believed that for all of us, not some of us, education was that silver bullet that could change our lives."
Perdue declared Wednesday as Bill Friday Day in North Carolina. Flags have been flying at half-staff at all state facilities since Friday's death, and bell towers at various UNC campuses rang out in his honor Wednesday morning.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt called Friday "our state's greatest builder" and said he had "big, ambitious, audacious goals" for North Carolina and its residents.
"The secret of Bill Friday wasn't just what he did – he did a lot – it was what he got us to do," Hunt said.
The hundreds of people gathered in Memorial Auditorium for the service laughed as Hunt recalled his meetings with Friday at the State Capitol. Friday would always refer to governors as "chief" and would hustle to Raleigh from Chapel Hill whenever he was determined to get something done.
"He was full of ideas," Hunt said. "When he left, I would have my agenda for the next six months or year, and it was all good for North Carolina."
Former UNC President C.D. Spangler Jr. spoke of Friday's abbreviated career as a baseball catcher, noting that the catcher is the only player who can see the entire field and is involved in every play. He carried that same vision with him to UNC, Spangler said.
"I have never, ever seen anyone else even in the same ballpark with Bill. He simply was the most significant educational leader in North Carolina in the 20th century," he said. "He saw all of North Carolina. He knew education was the only way out of poverty for all our people."
Spangler, who succeeded Friday as university president in 1986, also elicited a big laugh from the crowd as he told the story of deciding not to use his first name – Clemmie – on his stationery when he first assumed the office. Friday scoffed at the decision, telling Spangler that his middle name was Clyde.
"Every mule in western North Carolina is named Clyde," Friday told him.
Friday exhibited a mule's stubborn streak in his efforts to reform college athletics as founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said Hodding Carter, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor of public policy and former Knight Foundation president.
"(He was a) man who thought big causes are too important to concede and that people of good will can prevail, if they can only commit to action over time," Carter said. "To work with him was to learn from every encounter."
Jim Johnson, a professor at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School who worked with Friday for many years on initiatives aimed at at-risk youths, said his mentor had qualities that made him the "quintessential role model" – impeccable people skills, a sense of servant leadership, high morals and values and strong family ties.
"He could move from the suites to the streets without missing a beat," Johnson said. "In one-on-one interactions, he always gave you his undivided attention and made you feel like the most important person in the world at that particular moment. And as most of you know, these interactions were genuine."
Those qualities also made Friday a successful host of "North Carolina People" on UNC-TV, said veteran broadcast journalist Charlie Rose. He noted that Friday also produced the weekly interview show because he was always his own guide.
"In that program, he helped define North Carolina – and define all of us – through the voices of its people in the same way that a great university defines itself through the achievements and character and integrity of its graduates," Rose said.
"He made me understand that what you can dream, what you can imagine, you can do," he said.
To Mary Leadbetter and her sister, however, Friday was simply "Papa Bill," a man who taught his family the value of education and moral leadership but never took himself too seriously.
Leadbetter recalled one morning years ago when a student was found sleeping on a downstairs couch after entering the unlocked front door of the family's Franklin Street home. Friday counseled the man, who returned to the home – invited – on another occasion with his own student group, his daughter said.
"Daddy never met a stranger," she said. "Every person, every experience was an opportunity for greater understanding, compassion and service.
"(We) are comforted that his legacy will live on," she concluded.