Friday related to all, great and small

Posted October 17, 2012 5:10 p.m. EDT
Updated October 17, 2012 11:36 p.m. EDT

— Former University of North Carolina President William C. "Bill" Friday was universally regarded as a warm and approachable man who connected with people from all walks of life.

Those who knew him said this week that Friday, who died last Friday at age 92, made them feel important.

"He never talked down to anybody. You were always eye to eye with him, and that made him special," said Lester Warren, a parking attendant at the lot next to Friday's office on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Warren and fellow attendant Melodee Wilson said Friday, who continued to work decades after he retired in 1986, was never one for a passing hello and always stopped to chat.

"He always took the time to stop and ask how we were doing," Wilson said.

Gail Markland, who cut Friday's hair, said she recently enrolled at UNC to further her education because of his continual encouragement. He frequently checked on her grades and progress, she said, noting that he never stopped his sales pitch for a good education.

Washington State University President Elson Floyd earned three degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill before launching his career in education administration. Friday's mentoring inspired him along the way, he said.

"In many respects, President Friday really served as a second father to me and a whole generation of individuals whom he gave hope and optimism to (about) what North Carolina could become and what higher education could become," Floyd said.

Howard Lee, who served as Chapel Hill mayor from 1969 to 1975, when civil rights and Vietnam war protests were commonplace, said he would often seek Friday's counsel.

"I never heard him raise his voice," Lee said. "Any time I needed a calming voice in my ear, I would call Bill. ... He helped me understand the struggles that I was facing."

Likewise, former UNC President Erskine Bowles said Friday routinely offered him advice.

"It was like a life's lesson every day," Bowles said. "Each time I got to a turning point, when I had a tough decision, he knew to call, and he'd offer that word of wisdom."

Friday also offered an occasional dose of wisdom while paying for his ground chuck at Cliff's Meat Market in Carrboro.

"Boy, he had good advice always, and he could give it to you straight out without a smile or a frown," owner Cliff Collins said. "It was simple. It came easy to him."

Collins said Friday was as close to a saint as he's ever known.

"I felt like, when he walked in, Jesus Christ walked right beside him. You look around and say, 'I know he must be close by,'" he said. "Bill had an air about him, and he just made people feel good to be close to him."

Friday made people feel good because he remembered everyone's name, longtime associates said.

"I remember when I was a senior at Carolina in 1972 and he was still president," former Gov. Mike Easley said. "You'd see him around campus, and he would speak to everybody. You'd see him speak to the students, but he would always speak to the janitors and the landscapers."

Dick Baddour, former athletics director at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Friday took special interest in some students, such as a second-string offensive lineman on the Tar Heels football team.

"He was from a small town in North Carolina, and (Friday) liked to follow the careers and paths of those people," Baddour said.

Gov. Beverly Perdue said Friday also followed her political career.

"He taught me to believe in myself," Perdue said. "He talked to me about how each of us needed to decide who we were and why we were serving and what it was we wanted to accomplish."

At least once a week, Friday would stop at Plaza Dry Cleaners in Chapel Hill, and every Christmas, he would bring his gift of homemade peanut brittle, owner Brenda Dye Honeycutt said.

"When he came in, when he would speak to anyone, he would just light up," Honeycutt said.

He would also share heartfelt stories of his life, including the painful 2002 death of his daughter, Betsy, an actress.

"You could just feel the hurt because it really hurt him," Honeycutt said, adding that he had a positive beam of passion in his eyes and conversation on most visits.

"He was a man that was on fire with life," she said. "He appreciated every minute of his life."