- in Fitzsimon File

Former University of North Carolina system President Bill Friday, an alumnus of NC State University, honored by the university on July 15, 2008. Photo from ncsunewsdept flickr photostream.

This doesn’t really seem like a day for the usual Follies. North Carolina has lost one of its most respected and beloved leaders with the death of former UNC President Bill Friday at age 92.

We interviewed President Friday last Tuesday for the NC Policy Watch radio show News & Views. You can hear the interview here. The interview was by phone and Friday’s voice was weak, but his mind was sharp and his spirit was strong. His spirit was always strong.

Friday weighed in on a variety of topics including the current debate about university tuition, saying he was a “low tuition man.”

“I am really concerned that we are making price and the ability to pay the first standard that must be met by young people who want to go to college. That’s not what built this state. That attitude did not make North Carolina great.”

Friday knew what he was talking about. He led the university system for 30 years until he retired in 1986. Retired officially that is. He never really retired, never stopped speaking out, never stopped leading state and national commissions, and never stopped saying what so desperately needed to be said.

He was one of those rare breeds, sort of a moral compass for North Carolina. Plenty of people disagreed with him, but I never met anybody who didn’t respect him.

I was an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill in the later years of Friday’s tenure as UNC President and at one point decided that I should interview him for a story about tuition I was doing for a student television show that aired on a local cable outlet.

It seemed ridiculous to even ask, but Friday agreed to give us a few minutes one day between other appointments.

It took a lot longer than a few minutes. The lights we set up weren’t working correctly, the camera was giving us trouble or more likely we didn’t really know what we were doing. Friday was patient and friendly, asking us questions about our hometowns and majors while we fiddled with the equipment.

We finally did the interview and thanked him and made our way out of his office passing some important looking people waiting to see him. But he had made time for us.

I was lucky enough to have the chance to tell him that story years later and to get to know him. I can tell you that all those glowing tributes about him you will read in the next few days are true. He was that great of a man.

He became a leader to trying to rein the excesses of big money college sports and you got the feeling that the recent scandals at UNC were breaking his heart. He was an outspoken advocate for folks who couldn’t afford to make the donations required to sit on policymaking boards or have a politician’s ear.

I know he was dismayed at the recent budget passed by the General Assembly in the last two years and the deep cuts it made to public schools, community colleges, and the UNC system. He talked about it frequently.

He was named to the advisory committee currently developing the strategic direction of the UNC system but missed its first meeting a few weeks ago. It’s a committee that includes conservative legislative leaders and prominent funders of right-wing campaigns.

It’s a committee that desperately needs the voice and wisdom and perspective of Bill Friday.

Every so often after he retired as UNC president, his name would come up as a possible candidate for various political offices, but there’s little evidence he ever seriously considered it. Maybe it was what he saw happen to his predecessor at UNC, the legendary Frank Porter Graham who was defeated in a nasty, racist Senate campaign in 1950.

One of the ads produced by UNC Chapel Hill that runs during athletic events includes a snippet of a speech UNC Alum Charles Kuralt gave at the celebration of the university’s bicentennial in 1993. And as corny as it may be to non-UNC folks, there’s something about it that always strikes a chord when you hear it.

“What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. Or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming…. No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the University of the people.”

Our love and respect for Bill Friday is not based on the fact that he was the president of the university or rubbed shoulders with presidents and kings. Our love for him is based on the fact that he was a man of the people and always working for North Carolina, for all of us, not just the ones the buildings on the campuses are named after.

The state will never see another like him.

The current leaders of North Carolina should aspire to serve with even half the grace, dignity, and compassion of Bill Friday.

Photo of Bill Friday from ncsunewsdept.