Like tens of thousands of people who came through the University of North Carolina collegiate system, I loved Bill Friday. And like so many of those people, I still remember a couple of the personal kindnesses he took time to bestow upon me.
Friday died in his sleep at age 92 in Chapel Hill on Friday.
He was a towering figure in state education and his graciousness was unsurpassed. You can read about his many accomplishments elsewhere -- to list them all here would require an encyclopedia.
While Friday was the president of the UNC collegiate system for 30 years, from 1956-86, he always maintained a keen interest in sports (and in keeping them in their proper place on campus).
Friday was a fine baseball catcher in high school. As an undergraduate at N.C. State, he was the sports editor of the student newspaper. More than 50 years ago, he abolished the very popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament after a point-shaving scandal. He always had one of the most reasonable voices when critiquing how college sports should be reined in and how important it was to keep academics No.1 on campuses.
But like so many touched by Friday's gentlemanly and dignified manner, I will remember him mostly for our brief personal interactions.
When I was a student at UNC in the mid-1980s, Friday came to a journalism feature writing class I was taking and let us interview him en masse so we could write practice stories. My teacher later showed him some of those stories and he took the time to pass along a compliment about an analogy I had used comparing him to the owner of an old-time general store. I'm sure it was overwritten -- I liked to include three or four adjectives in every sentence back then -- but hearing that Friday liked something I had written made me redden with pleasure.
Later, when working for UNC's student newspaper, I called his office and asked to interview President Friday for an interview about some issue or another. I was expecting a five-minute phone conversation. He instead invited me to his office and gave me more than an hour of his time, quizzing me about my own life at Chapel Hill in between my questions to him.
I walked out of that office with a dizzying thought -- I think the president of the whole UNC system might be my friend! Friday had that sort of effect on people. As important a man as he was, he always seemed to have time for you.
I love this quote he provided to another interviewer from the Associated Press in 1995: "Courage, manners and decency cost a person so little," he said. "But disregard them and see what you get."
In 2006, I co-wrote a book about UNC's championship 1982 basketball season with former UNC point guard Jimmy Black.
Friday was in his late 80s by then. But Jimmy was insistent that there was only one person we should ask to write the book's foreword -- Bill Friday. We sent it to Friday through his longtime personal assistant, Virginia Taylor. He read it and sent back a wonderful foreword in which he also couldn't resist taking a couple of cracks at the current state of college athletics.
"College sports is now struggling to regain control over its destiny," Friday wrote. "Being an entertainment industry is not its purpose. The consequences are too costly, as we see all too often now."
Those words, written well before UNC's football turmoil of recent years, have never been truer.
Rest in peace, Bill Friday. And thank you for treating everyone you met with such respect and kindness.
6 months ago