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Bill Friday never forgot his black and gold roots

The late UNC president got his start on the Old Campus

By Kerry M. King ('85) Wake Forest Magazine
Bill Crop

William C. “Bill” Friday, the former University of North Carolina president and one of the most influential North Carolinians of the 20th century, never forgot his black and gold roots on the Old Campus.

Friday, 92, died Oct. 12 in Chapel Hill. He attended Wake Forest in 1937-38 before transferring to N.C. State, but he always credited Wake Forest with giving him a chance for an education. (Read a tribute from President Nathan O. Hatch.)

Last October, he returned to the Old Campus to speak at the annual meeting of the Wake Forest College Birthplace Society. He vividly recalled Dean D.B. Bryan offering him a $50 scholarship to cover half the cost of tuition in 1937.

“That’s how Bill Friday ever got any education beyond high school,” he said. “He and this institution that day began to change my life forever. So I’m here to say thank you. What I experienced, I’m sure hundreds of others did in those very dark and hard days that were so trying for everybody.”

Provost Emeritus Edwin G. Wilson (’43) had known Friday since the 1950s. “I treasured him as a personal friend,” Wilson said. “He was very faithful to Wake Forest. On every occasion that I can recall that he might have had an opportunity to mention Wake Forest, he did, with affection and appreciation. He was always available whenever he could contribute his time or his talents to Wake Forest.”

Friday received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Wake Forest in 1957. He spoke at the inaugurations of Presidents James Ralph Scales in 1968 and Thomas K. Hearn Jr. in 1983. He also spoke on campus at a special convocation in 1980 to mark the beginning of the Sesquicentennial Capital Campaign and announcement of a new financial arrangement between Wake Forest and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Friday grew up in the small Gaston County, North Carolina, town of Dallas during the Great Depression. After graduating from N.C. State – his father encouraged him to transfer there so he could study textiles – he served in the U.S. Navy and earned his law degree from UNC. He was an assistant to outgoing UNC President Gordon Gray when he was named interim president of the UNC system in 1956.

Bill Friday, at left, and Wake Forest President James Ralph Scales, following Convocation in 1980.

When he retired in 1986, he was the longest serving university president in the 20th century and one of the most admired. During his long tenure, he transformed UNC into one of the top universities in the country and led the expansion of the UNC system from three to 16 campuses. He helped form the ACC, the Research Triangle Park and North Carolina Public Television. He began hosting his long-running television show, North Carolina People, on UNC-TV, in 1981.

When Friday visited the Old Campus last year, Susan P. Brinkley (’62), president of the Birthplace Society, arranged for him to tour the Royall-Luddy house where he lived when he was a student. She said Friday told her that the visit brought back wonderful memories. “These experiences, 70 years later, are still as bright in my mind as yesterday morning,” Friday said during his visit.

Friday’s three younger brothers – Rutherford (’43), David (’48) and John (’48) – graduated from Wake Forest. “The Friday family is a Wake Forest family,” Bill Friday told the Birthplace Society. “Whenever I would go home at Christmas, Rudd, Dave and John would line up at the front door, and I had to sing the first verse of the Wake Forest alma mater or I didn’t get in the house.”

Bill Friday visits the Royall House, where he lived when he was a student.

After Friday visited the Old Campus, he invited Brinkley to appear on “North Carolina People” in May. For 27 minutes, with Brinkley as much a willing listener as the guest on the show, Friday talked about the many faculty members he fondly remembered from his time at Wake Forest.

“His director told me that he (Friday) had really been looking forward to the show as an opportunity to look back on his own journey” at Wake Forest, Brinkley said. “I still remember the twinkle in his eye. He had such a desire to reminisce. When the show ended he still had a list of people that he wanted to talk about.”

Friday was an active member of the Birthplace Society, Brinkley said. “His life exemplified Pro Humanitate and the liberal arts education that he got at Wake Forest,” she said. “That helped form his whole career and was an important part of his life.”

Bill Friday (center) at the groundbreaking for N.C. State's Carter-Findley Stadium.

After retiring from UNC, Friday remained a leading advocate for higher education and athletic reform. He was a founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which he chaired from 1989 until 2005, when he was succeeded by Hearn.

At Hearn’s inauguration in 1983, Friday delivered the welcome from North Carolina colleges and universities. “Oh, Here’s to Wake Forest! I learned those historic words … as a freshman arriving at that lovely old campus, excited, grateful, and half scared to death,” Friday, then president of the University of North Carolina, said. “Yes, dear Old Wake Forest – Thine is a noble name indeed, and this day and this hour we give thanks for such a glorious heritage.”