UNC President emeritus William Friday's death came with many recollections of my meetings with him, especially when I was a young photographer.
It was about 1985, and I was working nightside with reporter Claren Scott to chase down some controversy at UNC in Chapel Hill. I can't remember the issue, but Claren knew that scoring an interview with UNC President Bill Friday was the only way to make the story packageable.
Nothing was set up. No appointment made. We drove into Chapel Hill in the dark of night and worked up the courage to walk up the steps of the president's home on Franklin Street. We fully expected to be turned away. Claren suggested I turn my camera light on and start rolling before she rang the bell. I hated ambush interviews. President Friday had every right to either not answer the door or slam it in our face as soon as he saw the blinding light and the microphone aimed at the opening in the door.
We expected a butler, but it was Bill Friday himself. He did the worse thing he could possibly do. He made us feel totally ashamed of ourselves. No, he didn't wag his finger or scold us. He invited us in with a warm handshake and a smile. Before he allowed us to get to the subject at hand, he toured us through his home. His most prized item was an ink pen in a frame. Included was a note from President John Kennedy.
The story goes that during Kennedy's speech at Kenan Stadium in 1961, where he received an honorary degree, a young girl ran up asking for an autograph. President Kennedy had nothing to use to sign the piece of paper that the girl offered. He turned to Bill Friday, who pulled a fountain pen out of his pocket and gave it to the President. After granting the young supporter the autograph, Kennedy reflexively stuck the pen into his pocket. Perhaps Bill Friday thought about saying, “Uh, Mr. President, can I have my pen back?” – but he was probably more proud that it was now in Kennedy’s possession.
Days later, a letter of apology came in the mail along with a different pen – a very nice one. Kennedy wrote something to the effect of "I apologize for absconding with your weapon of intellectual freedom." The new pen was never used as a mere writing implement but rather occupied a prominent place in a frame on a wall in Friday's living room, the highlight of his home tours.
I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Friday many times in the years since. Most recently, this past summer, he was a guest in our TV studios. He may not have recognized me as he walked through the newsroom, but he did stop and say hello. Bill Friday was the perfect model for how all leaders should respond to the media – with honesty, humility and disarming gentility. Rare qualities.