His death comes on the same day as University Day on UNC Chapel Hill's campus. The day marks the laying of the cornerstone of Old East, the institution's first building and the oldest state university building in the nation, according to the school's website. It also comes just months after Friday had a permanent pacemaker implanted.
Gov. Bev Perdue ordered state flags to be lowered immediately to half-staff on all state facilities in honor of Friday.
Friday served as UNC System President from 1956 to 1986. His bust adorns the main campus library at Chapel Hill, a building is named after him and several books have been written about his life and legacy.
The longtime Chapel Hill resident was raised in Gaston County during the Great Depression. He earned a bachelor's degree in textile engineering from N.C. State University in 1941.
A year later, he married Ida Howell and served in the U.S. Naval Reserve. After World War II, he entered Carolina's law school, where he was president of the Law School Association and graduated in 1948.
"When you live with depression and war, death, you're a different human being," Friday said during an interview with ABC11 for his 90th birthday. "I think that's what stretched life out for me. I learned to decide early on what's really going to be worth worrying about and what isn't."
Before his 30-year tenure as UNC president, Friday was assistant dean of students at Carolina before becoming the assistant to Gordon Gray, president of the Consolidated University -- then known as UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Woman's College, which is now UNC Greensboro.
In 1955, Friday became secretary of UNC and was named acting president the following year. He was chosen to take the position permanently later in 1956.
During his three decades as president, Friday led UNC through integration, the sponsorship of the state education network and its growth into a 16-campus university system. He also helped with the formation of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I've seen it go from the point where you were lucky to have finished high school when I was a boy," Friday said. "To today you have to go to college to have a chance really to make it. The high school diploma is necessary and important, but it cannot be the end."
After retiring in 1986, Friday continued to push to keep college affordable and supported programs to reduce poverty and illiteracy. He also worked as co-chair of the Knight Commission -- a panel set up to slow down the dominance of sports over academics on college campuses -- and bristled over the compensation packages paid to college coaches.
"Every time you turn around, why do we play a 12th game, money," Friday said during an interview. "Why do we go to a bowl game, money. Why do you raise student athletic fees, we need the money. Why do we sell the television rights to the Dean Dome? Need the money, we need another million dollars. Somewhere you've got to bring this to an end."
Friday also had his own show on UNC-TV called "North Carolina People with William Friday."
At the age of 89, he underwent serious open-heart surgery. After convalescence he fired right back into his work on the show.
"There was a time about the third or fourth week when I said, 'Look, it's time for Ida and me to just sit on the front porch.' Well Ida didn't want any part of that. And now in the ninth week I have some energy, it's a bright beautiful morning, I've enjoyed having you with me and life is full again," Friday later told ABC11's Larry Stogner during an interview.
"North Carolina People" aired 40 years. Friday taped his last show on May 9, 2012.
Reaction to Friday's passing
Following the news of Friday's death, members of the UNC family, along with North Carolina leaders, released statements about his passing.
"Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our University -- and the state of North Carolina -- great," UNC President Tom Ross said on Friday. "He was a man of unquestioned honor and integrity who devoted a lifetime of extraordinary leadership and service to the University and state he loved so much. He also was a man of deep courage and conviction who never backed away from doing what was right thing for our students, faculty, staff, or our citizens. We have truly lost one of North Carolina's most special treasures."
North Carolina has lost one of its most remarkable citizens in Bill Friday." UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp added. "His influence on public higher education in our state and across the nation is legendary. In a lifetime devoted to public service, Bill Friday was committed to providing access to high-quality, affordable higher education to North Carolina students. He was tireless in his efforts to underscore the importance of higher education to people from all walks of life, as well as to our state's future prosperity."
"Bill Friday was truly a renaissance man, a phenomenal educational and human service leader, a marvelous husband and daddy, and my friend," Gov. Perdue said in a statement Friday. " There has been no person in North Carolina's history who more fully exemplified how one individual can, year after year, make a tremendous difference. It's only fitting that today, University Day at UNC, that the Carolina angels called him home. We loved him so much and will miss him dearly."
"Friday's extraordinary leadership improved the lives of millions of North Carolinians through affordable, quality education," Statement by Attorney General Roy Cooper on death of Friday. "He is an education legend whose influence was unparalleled."
"Bill Friday loved the people of North Carolina," U.S. Senator Kay Hagan said in a statement Friday. "That love was evident in his work for our state, as well as his weekly talk show where, for three decades, he welcomed the writers, thinkers, educators and others who were working to make a difference for North Carolina. Bill Friday was inspired by the citizens of our state, and inspired so many of us in return. He embodied the best of North Carolina, and his legacy will continue to live on in the many lives he touched."
"Bill Friday was a leader, a visionary, a role model, and a friend," Senator Richard Burr said in a statement. "Brooke and I were deeply saddened to hear of his passing, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and to all North Carolinians whose lives he touched. Despite never running for public office, Bill was one of the brightest political minds I have ever known. I enjoyed the time I spent with him both on and off camera, and his legacy in politics and education will endure for generations."
The director of communications and marketing at UNC-TV also released a statement Friday about Dr. Friday's passing.
"With respect to UNC-TV, Mr. Friday was one of the people responsible for the establishment of public television in North Carolina, was the driving force behind the creation of today's statewide network, and, of course, was the host of UNC-TV's longest-running original production, North Carolina People with William Friday," Steve Volstad wrote. "North Carolina People went on the air in 1971, and Mr. Friday interviewed literally hundreds of North Carolinians from all walks of life during his 41 years of weekly programs with grace, wisdom, and gentle humor. We are saddened by his passing, but we are grateful for his countless contributions to the state he loved and for his commitment to UNC-TV and public television. We will miss him terribly."