Everyone is struggling to find superlatives to adequately describe Bill Friday and I suspect all feel inadequate in finding the right words. I think it enough to say that he was North Carolina’s greatest friend. He loved this state, its people and especially our university system with a dedication and passion unequalled. I have special memories of him.
I first met him through my father, Hartwell, who was then a legislator, but I had certainly known and read about him. Whether a king or a pauper, when you were in Bill Friday’s presence he had the ability to make you feel you were the only person in the room and that your opinion was the only one that mattered. He was always asking you questions, gathering information from everyone. Soft-spoken, always gentlemanly and courteous (even in disagreement), he was incredibly well read.
There were many of us who urged him to run for office…and he was tempted after leaving the university, but he didn’t want to put his beloved Ida and family through it and he remembered too well the divisive election between Willis Smith and Frank Porter Graham, himself the former president of UNC. A young Bill Friday drove Graham around during that campaign that got nasty and Friday didn’t want to be part of anything ugly. He was one of three great mentors to me.
Monday morning calls, following my Sunday television program, were frequent, especially if we had discussed education the day before. He always watched and often had praise, but on those occasions when he didn’t agree with something said he was never critical, instead making suggestions that we might consider next time. But there was one show, last year before his heart attack, that prompted him to suggest I interview him on education. He came to our studio to record it and this interview, along with the extended interview we had when he turned 90th, is among two of my great treasures. We often joked about his more than 2,000 “North Carolina People” shows on UNC-TV, the longest running television talk show in this nation hosted by a single host. He often said he was better known for these interviews than for his presidency of UNC, but that was typical of his humble demeanor. He was our featured guest on our 600th NC SPIN show, telling me that one day I would exceed his record and that he was keeping the “North Carolina People” seat warm, suggesting I might fill his chair when it was his time to step down. But nobody could ever take his cherished place…on television or in our hearts.
At an age when most people are losing interest in affairs of state, even after his most recent serious illness, Bill Friday never lost interest in what was going on in North Carolina. He was terribly saddened over the athletic and academic scandal at UNC because it tarnished the reputation of that great institution he loved so dearly, but more importantly, because it distracted our attention away from the main purposes of the university. We have not seen his equal in our lifetime and will mourn his passing. We have lost our greatest friend.
PS- If you would like to have a copy of our hour-long interview with him please visit our website ncspin.com and go to the Carolina Collection section under the SPIN store.