By Todd Cohen
North Carolina owes a huge debt of gratitude to William Friday.
Friday, who turns 92 today, is our state’s father figure and beloved son, and its truest servant-leader.
More than any other single individual in the second half of 20th century, Bill Friday helped shape the transformation of our state from an agricultural and manufacturing economy driven by tobacco, textiles and furniture to a global competitor that fosters and is fueled by innovation in information technology, bioscience and world-class research, as well as the emerging fields of social entrepreneurship and public service.
After working as a young aide to Frank Porter Graham, the legendary president of the University of North Carolina who built that institution into an engine of economic growth and a beacon of social progress, Friday himself was named president of UNC in his mid-thirties, growing the institution from three campuses to 16 in his 30 years in the job.
A political genius, Friday has led not through the raw patronage and crass deal-making typical of politicians, or through their shameless posturing and pursuit of self-interest, but by treating people with dignity and decency, listening carefully, and working quietly and diligently behind the scenes to build consensus and support.
He has been a passionate and relentless advocate for the fundamental need to make higher education affordable and accessible for North Carolinians.
Under his leadership, the UNC System produced the workers, leaders and innovators in the public, corporate and nonprofit sectors who have helped make North Carolina a formidable economic power and a force for social progress in fields ranging from medicine and digital media to higher education, human services, finance and philanthropy.
He was instrumental in the creation of Research Triangle Park, an entity designed to tap and enrich the know-how and human capital of nearby Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, and that has made the Raleigh-Durham area a global center for research, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Friday has been a national leader in the fight to protect higher education from the influence that big-time college athletics and the big money it attracts can have on academic excellence.
As UNC president, and then for 10 years as president of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, Friday worked tirelessly to try to address urgent needs ranging from poverty and illiteracy to poor health and the other social ills that can crush human hope and progress.
Until his hospitalization in May, when he received a pacemaker, Friday had continued to host North Carolina People, the weekly interview program UNC-TV has broadcast for over 30 years that celebrates the depth and breadth of the leaders, innovators and rich mix of characters who personify North Carolina. (He plans to return to the studio for his show next week, taping an interview with Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a graduate of North Carolina State University, Friday’s alma mater.)
Before his hospitalization, Friday also had continued to go to work and meet with visitors in his tiny office on the second floor of Graham Memorial, the historic building on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill that is named for Edward Kidder Graham.
Graham, who became UNC’s eighth president in 1914, once said the boundaries of the university were “co-terminus” with those of the state, a clear claim of turf that underscores the university’s core mission of making North Carolina a better place to live and work by educating and serving its citizens.
Trained as a lawyer, not an academic, Bill Friday has been North Carolina’s consummate teacher and change-agent because he understands, innately and through his own continuing education, that leaders lead by listening and learning, by sharing what they know, and by engaging and connecting their fellow citizens in the job of working together to build a better world.