Dignitaries gather to honor William Friday


"If there really is a Carolina Blue heaven, we know Bill Friday is up there smiling down on us," offered North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue.

Friday personified higher education in North Carolina even after he stepped down after 30 years as president of the University of North Carolina system in 1986. He died at his home in Chapel Hill on Oct. 12 - the same day as UNC's annual "University Day" celebration. He was 92 years old.

"He simply was the most significant education leader in North Carolina in the 21st century," offered President Emeritus C.D. Spangler.

Friday was just 35 years old and the assistant to outgoing UNC President Gordon Gray when he was offered the position of interim president of the UNC system in 1956. He didn't expect to stay long, telling a reporter: "I expect that I will be in this place no more than a few months."

He became the shaper of North Carolina's modern, multi-campus system. Biographers have portrayed Friday as the calm at the center of many storms - among them a 10-year fight with what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

The last was "the heaviest burden to carry for the longest period of time," Friday said in an Associated Press interview in 1995.

The fight involved the agency's contention that duplicate programs at traditionally white and black campuses must be eliminated to achieve racial balance, a proposal that Friday fought throughout the Carter administration. It was settled quietly with a consent decree in 1981 with the Reagan administration that required UNC to spend more money at historically black institutions but did not end duplicate programs.

To reach that settlement, Friday, a progressive and a liberal, had to work not only with the Republican president but also with conservative Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. It wasn't that Friday was opposed to desegregation - it was that he believed that the state and UNC should control the university, not the federal government.

"It was a classic civil rights struggle, except it was really profoundly complicated," said William Link, author of "William Friday: Power, Purpose and American Higher Education," a biography published in 1997. "Friday, a liberal, was on the side of people resisting federally controlled desegregation."

Friday had suffered a mild heart attack in 2008 and had open heart surgery the following year. He was hospitalized this summer to get a permanent pacemaker. He had not been ill prior to his death.

Other speakers at his memorial service Wednesday included television personality Charlie Rose, current UNC President Tom Ross, and former NC Governor Jim Hunt.

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