A champion for education
By Turner Walston
Published in News on January 12, 2006 1:53 PM
About 60 years ago, five friends at the University of North Carolina Law School formed a study group that later would change the university they loved.
Friday, they will say goodbye to one of their most prominent -- and, they say, most humble -- members.
William Dees Jr., 85, died Monday morning after a long illness.
Dees, a prominent Wayne County attorney, went to law school at UNC in 1945 after serving in the military. It was there that he met William Friday, Dickson Phillips, William Aycock and John Jordan.
William Dees Jr. is pictured during his high school days. Dees and four other friends at the University of North Carolina formed a study group that would later change the face of education in the state.
Later, after graduation, each man would hold a leadership position with the university -- and have a profound impact on education in North Carolina.
Their past military service brought the friends together -- and set the pace for their careers.
"We were all in the service, and that meant we had lost some time in our career," Aycock said. "Not that we regretted it, but we were older and we had a sense of purpose that we had to move ahead right away."
They knew they wanted to make a difference.
"We had a sense of purpose, and we studied hard and we meant to make some contribution, and if you look at our record, all of us worked in education in some form or fashion."
Friday served as the president of the UNC system for 30 years. Phillips was dean of the School of Law and later was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Jordan was the third chairman of the UNC Board of Governors and a state senator. Aycock served as chancellor at UNC from 1957-1964 in between terms as a law professor at the school. Dees was the first chairman of the UNC Board of Governors after serving on the Goldsboro City Board of Education.
All four men will attend their friend's memorial service at 2 p.m. Friday at First Presbyterian Church in Goldsboro. A private burial will precede the service.
They say his impact on education, North Carolina and their lives, was profound.
"He was a brilliant, compassionate, great personality and leader," Friday said.
"He had all the qualities that one would want as a leader and as a friend," Aycock said. "I think everybody that knows him knows he was an able, hard worker."
After law school, Dees returned to Goldsboro to join his father's practice. He served on the Goldsboro Board of Aldermen and Board of Education. Dees also spent two years on the state Board of Education.
In the 1970s, Dees returned to UNC as a member of the school's Board of Governors. When the system was being reorganized, he was the board's first elected chair.
"I think he set the standard for the Board of Governors. He set it high, and he worked hard on it," Aycock said of Dees. "He set a high standard of trying to get this system working."
Phillips said Dees laid the groundwork for the system's success today.
"He led that institution through its critical early years, set it on its right course, saw it through its tough organizational times and through the desegregation movement of that time."
Friday called Dees the architect of the university's current leadership structure.
"His impact upon the university is a lasting one," he said.
Dees "was one of the fathers of the University of North Carolina as we now know it," said C.D. Spangler, who served as UNC system president from 1986 to 1997.
Despite his influence, Spangler said Dees was a quiet leader.
"I don't believe I ever heard him interrupt anyone," he said.
Dees was on the search committee that chose Spangler as president in 1985.
"I met with that committee for several hours," Spangler said. "He sat and listened and looked, but he didn't ask a question. He was the only person out of that 11-member group that did not, at that time, ask a question of me. He listened.
"In subsequent meetings, he did ask perceptive questions, and I was happy to have his support."
Spangler said Dees was a willing adviser during his time as system president.
"Those 11 years, I saw him as being a real stable leader, a very considerate leader for the University of North Carolina. I relied on him as much as I could," he said.
Dees understood the importance of education in North Carolina, Spangler said.
"He put his time and his heart into these educational activities," he said. "He never asked for anything. He never sought anything for himself."
And that was what made him a remarkable lawyer, and a fine man, Phillips said.
"He did it right all the way through, in his personal life and his public service as a lawyer. He's one of the fine people of my generation of North Carolina."
Aycock recalled a speech he gave when Dees received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Boy Scouts of America in 1988.
"I said he had done more for education for nothing than most people ever did for money," Aycock said. "And I meant that because that was his passion, education."
Despite the role each man would play in laying the groundwork for the modern university, Phillips said he and his law school classmates simply enjoyed their time together.
"We were just all good friends who happened to be back with the war over, and had a great time in law school as friends," he said. "I doubt if any of us thought anything particularly serious was going to happen to us in later life. It was really a great time to be alive and we enjoyed the friendship."
Spangler said men of Dees' caliber are rare.
"I'm sure North Carolina will develop leaders now and in the future like Bill Dees, but it's pretty hard to do."
He will be missed by the not just those friends he made so many years ago, but others whose lives he has touched, Spangler said.
"He's the most remarkable person that I had the opportunity to work for when I was working for the university. I admire him immensely."
Friday said Dees' impact will continue to be felt.
"This state and every citizen in it are greatly in his debt."
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