Bill Friday: Truly one of the century’s greatest
Members of the North Carolina Senate and the House of Representatives put all the pressing issues of the day aside recently and spent two hours in joint session praising one of the state’s all-time great citizens.
Receiving the accolades was William “Bill” Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina system.
The praise came from leaders of all political persuasions. And it came from their hearts.
Among the speakers were former governors Jim Hunt and Jim Holshouser, as well as Gov. Mike Easley. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight had called Friday and, without saying why, asked him to come to the Legislative Building and bring his family on Tuesday, June 22.
It is believed to have been the first time in North Carolina history that a citizen and his family were so honored by a joint session of the General Assembly.
And there could not have been a more deserving recipient of such recognition.
Bill Friday might easily have become governor of the state or a member of the U.S. Senate, conceivably a president of the United States.
He declined urgings to seek elective office, preferring to devote his life to the cause of better education and uplifting our people.
And we are a far greater state because of that decision.
A child of the Depression, Bill Friday knows first-hand the physical and spiritual gnawing pangs of poverty. He still has visions of a boyhood classmate who clipped grocery bags to use as classroom writing paper. As a boy, Friday delivered newspapers and worked weekends in a textile mill machine shop to help his family.
He graduated from N.C. State, received a direct commission in the U.S. Navy and served as operations manager of a huge ammunition depot in Virginia during World War II. After the war, he graduated from the law school at Chapel Hill.
Friday joined the university as an assistant to President Frank Porter Graham and later served as secretary to UNC President Gordon Gray.
He subsequently was offered the position of assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He refused.
In 1956, at the age of 36, he was named president of the University of North Carolina. He led the state’s university system through the most challenging and meaningful years in its history. Among the challenges was desegregation. Bill Friday achieved it while at the same time preserving the identity and sense of culture of traditionally black institutions. All emerged as better universities.
He has been a champion of education as the best weapon to fight poverty and human misery.
One of the hallmarks of his service as president was his unyielding stance for the freedom of speech and expression. It was a position that took great courage. During the turbulent 1960s, the General Assembly passed the Speaker Ban Law to prevent communists from speaking on college campuses.
Bill Friday undertook a personal — and successful — crusade to have the ban repealed.
But while he has been in the forefront in the advocacy of freedom, he has been quick to note that freedom also demands responsibility in its exercise.
He has been a great and effective communicator of the most important causes of our times.
We are a better people and a better state and we have better institutions because of this great man who, despite his accomplishments and influence, always has manifested a genuine sense of humility.
William “Bill” Friday easily merits recognition as one of North Carolina’s most outstanding citizens of the past century.
When members of the General Assembly stood in his honor on June 22, they expressed the respect, admiration and gratitude of the millions of their constituents throughout the state.
Published in Editorials on July 6, 2004 12:18 PM