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Photo by Mackenzie Brough.
bill friday headshot
bill friday headshot
In this web extra that continues the conversation from our March/April 2012 issue, the former UNC president opens up about finding the confidence to lead, becoming a talk show host and the Carolina spirit that stays with alums long after they leave.
On becoming president:
BF: I had already spent four years or five years, Fred, working in President [Gordon] Gray’s office. I knew a lot of the troubles of that position. When I went over that morning with the executive committee sitting in the governor’s office, Governor Hodges had asked me to come back over there; they wanted to talk to me. I went through their questions and I walked out of there, I got over there at about the monument where Worth Bagley was, one of those monuments. I said, “Look, I’m not ready for this.” So I turned around and I walked back towards the governor’s office. I got right to the door and I said, “Wait a minute, now. I can’t go in there and act like I know their business better than they do. I’d better be quiet and go home,” and that’s what I did. I went back out to N.C. State and went to work. Governor Hodges called me out there and he said, “Come on back down here,” and that’s the way it happened. I had had plenty of misgivings because we were in very difficult times then.
FK: Were there repercussions, President Friday, when you became president of the UNC system, and you chose to live in Chapel Hill?
BF: I was just following the tradition pattern that had always been here. Frank Graham had lived here. Gordon Gray had lived here. It was never debated in my mind. I just took up residence, and Ida did, and we raised three children there, 30 years there.
FK: That leads itself to another question: You came on in 1957 to be permanently named president of the consolidated UNC system. What do you remember of 1957 besides being named president -- the championship basketball season?
BF: Oh, yes. It was not only a championship, but an undefeated championship. Yes, that was quite a tide to ride in on. I remember that Hugh Morton just insisted that Ida and I come down to take part in the Azalea Festival. Hugh, ever the promoter, didn’t put on the car door that I was there represent the university. It says, “President of the National Champions, No. 1.” He was always pulling things like that. But we got to be great friends and did many things together. I really miss him.
FK: And you still think that despite all of our economic woes and the monster sometimes of the consolidated University in this day in age, a sense of purpose for the students is paramount?
BF: Oh, yes. In fact, I think it’s probably the most vital agency the [University] has right now. It really is. It’s the place where ideas are born, where great things germinate – a good health program that revolutionized the health of this state after World War II. Look at all its done in development. But most of all, it’s turning out people that become mayors and solicitors and judges and governors.
FK: School teachers.
BF: That, of course, is the most important group. They do a very, very critical work here. They really do.
On his esteemed colleagues:
BF: People like Preston Epps – here we were, all of us down there in the law school, all of had been in World War II an average of 45 months. We were tired, worn out. Yet we would get up at 8 on Sunday morning to go to the Methodist church to hear Frank Hanft teach the Bible. Now, we did that not only because we were his law school students but the man had something to say. He wrote a book called “You Can Believe” that Bob Merrill published. It was a very successful book. That was a different crowd, a different generation. Out of that came Governor Sanford, Chancellor Aycock, a board chairman William Dees, a board chairman John Jordan, federal judge Dickson Phillips - I could go on. It’s a powerful group of people. It was the university that turned the light on, you see, and this is why this place I think is so critical.
On UNC continuing its proud traditions:
FK: It truly is a beacon on a hill.
BF: In fact, its light is probably brighter now than it’s ever been. I don’t think one generation is that much more significant. You can look at this faculty today and there are people here who are doing profoundly important work. There’s a lady for example that’s making the commencement talk this year, Barbara Fredrickson, a very talented person. So the good work goes on.
FK: Is there a favorite place on campus or in Chapel Hill that you and Ida like to go?
BF: Oh, sure. You remember where the Long Meadow Ice Cream Bar used to be on the upper end of Franklin Street? We always went up there. We’d go to Sutton’s. I knew Old Doc very well, and the Foster Camera Store. Then of course, you go up to the end of the block and there’s Y.Z. Cannon holding court with Big Red Marley and all those barbers in the barber shop. Then the gentleman that ran the store there, the dry goods store, the great store - he and Mr. House are back there playing checkers one day and the chancellor told him, “There’s a customer up front.” He said, “Bob, be quiet. Maybe he’ll go away.” That’s a true story.
FK: That’s a great story.
BF: Goodness, I can remember those Saturday mornings when you go down Franklin Street and there was John Umstead, Carl Durham, who’s the head of the atomic energy committee in the House, old Dr. Eubanks, and they’d all be sitting on that bench right outside the bank just visiting. Then Kay Kyser would come around and he’d say, “Come on, let’s go up here to the NC Cafeteria and eat lunch.” We’d go up there to eat and he’d go visit with everybody in creation. You don’t see that now and boy, you miss it. You really do. Bob Barley yelling at you across the street, Carrington Smith lighting up that pipe four different times before he could get any tobacco to burn - that was some place.
FK: If Bill Friday had an opportunity to sit down with two or three people in history over a plate of barbecue and iced tea, who would you like to invite?
BF: Oh my.
FK: We can expand the party to three or four.
BF: Fred, to tell you the truth, I’ve had that experience here. Sitting down and talking for example with Paul Green and Professor Kotch, all that group over at PlayMakers who introduced theater to North Carolina. They really did. It’s added to the cultural quality of life here in a remarkable way. Then you get to people like Ed Lanier. Ed was a University officer, then he wound up mayor, then he went to the state legislature and he still rode around here in that Model A Ford of his. I was often amazed could make it to the end of the block. You sit down with Ollie Cornwell, Kay Kyser, Carrington Smith and John Umstead together - you talk about creating a circus, you’d never leave. I’m sure I’m missing people, but there was a time, and this would have been during the 50s, people don’t know the high school used to be down where University Square is. It won’t happen again. It was a legendary time. It’s not something you feel bad about, it’s just that you just grow. It was really something.
FK: That leads to this question: do you remember Jake Wade, who was the UNC sports publicity offer?
BF: I certainly do.
FK: Do you remember his piece he wrote that this is a town and University touched by a strange magic? Is there any magic left in Chapel Hill and with the University?
BF: Yes, I really do believe that. There are people here who are not caught up in the rush, that are not running seven days a week. They go along. The hard thing to learn, Freddie, is that I’m the old-timer now. I used to view these people with such reverence and respect and all of a sudden, years have gone by and here you are. You’re left. Well, you can’t wander around the place here without finding people like Bob Dunham or Dick Phillips or people that are - Bill Aycock. You can just go on and on, such talented people. And they’re talented because they chose to stay here and they were not only energized by the place, but in time, they’ve contributed to what has happened here. You just can’t live here and not feel it. I’m sure it’s true and will always be because that’s the way it was built and that’s the way it lives. I used to have people talk to me about … there’s no religion in Chapel Hill. I said, “I wish you’d come here one Sunday and walk with me around the parking lots and see how many people are in church. This is a profoundly religious community of people here.” You see that in the way people get concerned about those who are hungry, walking the streets homeless. Some of the biggest arguments this town has is over what to do about it. Do you hear that in Burlington or Greensboro or Raleigh with the intensity that you hear it here? I hope it is true, and I’m sure it is, but I just happen to have experienced it here in a way that it’s 24/7. People are really worried about it.
FK: You’ve had a wonderful, wonderful journey, have you not?
BF: Oh, yes, I certainly have and I’ve been the most fortunate person in this community. I’ve had wonderful friends and people to work with, and I’ve never tried to kid myself. I realize where the excellence was. My job was to try to keep the peace, keep the legislature in a working mood with this place. I’ve always found that when people really understand, they become the greatest friends the University ever had. I’ve seen so many of them march through here, people like Dickson Repp for example, an eminently successful man but he’s never taken his eye of Chapel Hill. That was the generation of young people that I worked with more intimately. Every one of them, every one of them will come back here. I’ve never seen such loyalty.
FK: You have hosted for many years this wonderful program that my mother watches religiously, North Carolina People. Is there anyone that you didn’t interview that you would love to have had that opportunity?
BF: Well, I started thinking that but Billy Graham visited with me I think three times now. I’ve never asked Michael Jordan because I didn’t know where he was. He’s hard to find. No, I’ve never had a turn down. In thinking about it, people have died before I could get to them because you can’t do but 52 a year. But I’ve worked very hard to get at people. I would like to have done more with people like Paul Greene. This place, in the interval of 1920-1941, was really priceless. These people were real characters. You just can’t put together people like Howard Odum and Albert Coates and Henry Brandis and all of these wonderful people in the sociology department. They were giants. Let me tell you: The intellectual chemistry around this place was vigorous. Things happened. This is what you look back on and you just say, “Gee whiz, what a privilege it was to be here.”
FK: What were some of your fondest memories as a student at N.C. State and here in Chapel Hill?
BF: Freddie, there were so many. I came out of a high school [Dallas HS, Gaston County] that had 12 senators in the graduating class. This was when the Great Depression was beginning to ebb. I had been working 56 hours a week in a machine shop, so I didn’t have much time for play in those days. And when I got up here in this area and began to see football games and basketball games, meeting and talking with a whole new generation, it was an exciting time. I never had a dull week. It was just full of vigor. When you room with people like Joe and Bill Hasselbeck, too, if you didn’t go with them, they would run over you. They were such wonderful people. One of the great tragedies of my life was that Sunday morning when Joe went down in a Piedmont Airlines crash down at New Bern. What a war story he was. Our third roommate was Bill Ellington, whose dad was the Register of Deeds of Wake County.
FK: In this world today where there is so much partisanship and adversarial relations in politics, athletics and what have you, how were you able to maintain such a strong and healthy relationship with so many people -- some who differed from you?
BF: Well, I think we always understood that we were being perfectly open with each other. If we disagreed, we would disagree amicably. But you put your finger on something, Fred. I was talking to Professor [William] Leuchtenberg on my program the other day, and I asked him the question about the history of campaigning. He said, “There’s something about it that’s different this time. It’s cruel. It’s very intensely personal. It’s mean-spirited. It’s hurting the country around the world.” Bill had just been to Cambridge again and Belgium and two or three other places in Europe. He said the impression that he got from coming back was that they just don’t understand why America’s acting this way. It really is troubling. I don’t know. We’ve got to learn to be civil again or we’re going to get in real trouble. So I hope the universities of the country will begin to create ways of saying this to young people and especially the young leadership: “Look, learn to disagree amicably. Always be assertive, but you don’t have to destroy to make an argument.”
FK: What’s going to have to happen do you think, President Friday, to get that point across?
BF: Well, I think we’re learning pretty fast right now. While you and I are sitting here talking, the country is about to reach that point again where it has no money. Now, this is the third time this has happened in your lifetime and mine. That’s a shameful consequence. We’ve got to be smarter than that. You don’t see other nations doing this. They have plenty of troubles, but this is acting like a sophomore would act. I don’t mean to malign sophomores, because I was one myself.
FK: We were all, were we not?
BF: It’s an expression to indicate the lack of working toward a very critical judgment level. We just don’t respect people the way we should. I think what’s got to happen here is that - I noticed it in this young generation that comes through this office from time to time, they’ve lost their patience with old folks. I noticed a wonderful increase in them that - when the summertime comes, they’re off to Africa or somewhere. I venture to say more than half the students have that experience and I’m sure all of them do before they graduate, most of all of them. They come back, you see, and it’s an attitude of embarrassment. I’m embarrassed about my country. They’ll do something about it, and that’s what’s so reassuring to me because my generation is too old and has passed on but this generation that’s in charge now, to see the Congress of the United States getting an eight percent rating to me is awful. If you’re going to serve the public, you should make a personal commitment. Always the test is what’s best for my country - not my party, not my state - what’s best for my country? That’s not being asked now, and we’re feeling the pain of that.
FK: I’m tired of politicians. I’d like to see statesmen again.
BF: That’s exactly right. You remember Robert Taft would disagree with you, but Robert Taft was a gentleman. He came here and gave a lecture one time. I drew the job of driving him around, and I had a wonderful time with him. Mrs. Roosevelt came. She was a very controversial person but you didn’t see this kind of [adversarial] behavior. This is what troubles me so much. It’s not getting old. You just see it. It has a selfish motivation. It has a preservation motivation. But it doesn’t speak to the best interests of our country.
On the spirit of the UNC alumnus:
What you learn by that, this place, when they start thinking about where to go, what to do, who to see, they think of Chapel Hill automatically. That kind of quality and leadership quotient and commitment of involvement is so important to this country. That’s what Bill Aycock and Chris Fordham and all of us -- we’ve tried very hard to keep that reputation solid because it’s so needed by the country. It’s needed now more than any time in my 60 years around here. It’s a sense of spirit that you get when you’re a student at Chapel Hill that you don’t ever forget. You might not do anything with it. Most students do. But you leave here a different fellow or a different lady. You have a notion in your head that look: I inherited something here so what am I doing to make it better? That’s the mission you want all your graduates to feel -- a sense of uprose. I think it’s very true today.