Chapel Hill, N.C. — On a day meant to celebrate the University of North Carolina, university officials, students and alumni mourned the death of one of UNC's monumental figures.
As UNC-Chapel Hill held University Day activities, commemorating the 219th anniversary of the campus' founding, officials observed a moment of silence to honor the legacy of former UNC President William C. "Bill" Friday, who died Friday morning at age 92.
Friday headed UNC from 1956 to 1986, leading it through the civil rights era, the creation of the 17-campus university system and an era of unprecedented growth.
"He lived a life that exemplified everything that made our university great," UNC President Tom Ross said. "He was a man of deep courage and conviction who never backed away from doing the right things for our students, faculty and the citizens of North Carolina. We have lost one of our state's most special treasures."
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp echoed those sentiments, calling Friday " one of (the state's) most remarkable citizens."
"His influence on public higher education in North Carolina and across the nation is legendary," Thorp said.
Even students who weren't even born until after Friday retired recognized what he meant to UNC, ringing the Old Well on campus with piles of flowers in his honor.
"He contributed so much to the university. He'll be so sorely missed," said Austin Gilmore, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. "(Dying on University Day) is almost appropriate for a man who dedicated his life to the mission of helping students get through college and keeping college affordable and accessible to all North Carolina students
"It's a sad day but also a day to take some time out to remember a man who dedicated literally his entire life to higher education," Gilmore said.
"He laid the groundwork for everything that UNC has and everything that we'll have in the future," student Joey DeRusso said. "For that, I know all the student body, including myself, is eternally grateful."
The integrity of the UNC system was paramount to Friday, according to former Gov. Mike Easley, a longtime friend.
"He understood that the university existed because of the goodwill of the people and that he held that in his hands, and he had to maintain the goodwill and integrity of the university," Easley said.
"North Carolina lost a good friend," he continued, "especially those who are in need in this state lost a good friend and a real advocate."
Friday believed passionately in the accessibility of education for all students in the state. He advocated high-quality schools with affordable tuition.
"Those are all things that Bill Friday championed, and those are all the things that Carolina holds most dear – to be the university that is accessible to everybody," Thorp said. "All of us who have carried those torches since then did it because of him."
Friday was the man Thorp and other leaders turned to for advice. He never the let people at the very top forget how important the mission of higher education was for people all over the state.
"The university plays a vital role in their lives and in many, many different ways, and I think that is what he always reminded me – that I'm entrusted with the university of the people," Ross said.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said Friday hated when lawmakers raised tuition on UNC campuses.
"He got mad at me in the '90s when I was a part of raising tuition. He talked to me about how a coal miner's daughter ought to have more sense than that," Perdue said. "I heard what he said and agreed with him and have worked with him to keep tuition down. He cared about people."
Lauren Hovis, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, agreed, calling Friday a great public servant who had a kind heart and treated everyone equally.
"He made this university what it is today," Hovis said. "He was advocate for this university. He meant so much. He's done so much for this university, and then again, education in North Carolina."