Someone asked if I was going to the funeral today in Chapel Hill, and I said no, but I'd like to. I'd like to pay my respects and show my admiration for a man who was the greatest North Carolinian of his generation, William Friday. The president emeritus of the University of North Carolina did more for this state during the 20th century than anyone I can think of, and he did it while retaining the respect and admiration of almost everyone in the state.
He was ever the perfect gentleman and always the advocate and defender of education and ever the critic and enemy of ignorance and poverty. Friday could have had any number of jobs, including political offices (governor and U.S. Senate), if he had wanted them, but he saw his calling as leading the University of North Carolina through its most tumultuous years. And when he retired in 1986, he remained in the center of North Carolina civic and educational life, maintaining a university office and interviewing people weekly on UNC-TV.
I was a student at UNC in roughly the middle of Friday's tenure as president, 1956-1986, and I knew him only as the presiding officer at ceremonial events and the calming voice in times of crisis. I did not formally meet him until many years later, after the publication of William Link's biography, "William Friday: Power, Purpose & American Higher Education." Link and Friday spoke at Barton College's Friends of the Library event in 1995 or '96, and Jim Hemby, then the Barton president, introduced me to Friday (Hemby had worked under Friday during a sabbatical). Shaking my hand, Friday exclaimed, "Oh, I know Hal Tarleton!"
I smiled and brushed off the greeting, assuming Friday probably said that to everyone he met. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps he did know my name and face. For three or four years in the 1990s, I was a member of a panel of newspaper editorial writers who appeared on UNC-TV's "North Carolina This Week" program. Friday was likely a regular viewer of the show since he was also a UNC-TV personality, and perhaps he did remember me from that show.
I'd like to think so, anyway.