Kate Torrey: Remembering Bill Friday

We welcome a guest post today from Kate Torrey, director of UNC Press from 1992 to 2012 (she served as editor-in-chief from 1989-1992). After the passing of UNC Press friend and neighbor William Friday last month, we reached out to several friends and colleagues who knew the North Carolina education icon well. (You can read previous posts about Friday here on the blog.) Kate had the following fond remembrance to contribute.

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Over the past few weeks, since the news of Bill Friday’s death, I’ve been trying to remember exactly when and where I first met him. I believe it was in the fall of 1989, shortly after I arrived in Chapel Hill, and that Matt Hodgson, director of the Press, introduced us. Although the particulars of that first meeting are now fuzzy, what remains crystal clear is how awkward I felt in those early days of our friendship as I tried to figure out how to address him. Matt and Bill were just that to each other—“Matt” and “Bill”—warm friends, contemporaries, and longtime, mutual admirers. But for me, new to the state, the university, the town, the Press, and several decades younger than he, using “Bill” seemed uncomfortably familiar, despite his own easy manner and lack of formality. So I tried Mr. Friday, President Friday, Dr. Friday; I’d heard each of these used, often interchangeably in a single conversation, by people who knew him far better than I.

Over the next few months, as we would see each other regularly on Hooper Lane or exchange a wave and a word or two at the beginning or end of the day—me from the parking lot or sidewalk, he from the driveway or front steps of his house—or as we would find ourselves walking in tandem toward campus, I grew comfortable with “Bill.” On these occasions, I found him open and engaging, always ready with a question about the Press, an author, a new book.

I remember that when Brooks Hall burned to the ground in 1990—dangerously close and directly across the street from the house he and Ida had built just a couple of years earlier, after he retired as university president—Bill’s sole concern was that the Press endure. He wanted everyone to know that the institution was much more than the building it occupied. On more than one occasion, he and Matt both described that terrible experience as being analogous to a badly broken leg, a complication to be overcome but certainly not a life-threatening injury.

When Matt retired in 1992, I wasn’t the obvious person to succeed him. And soon after my appointment, I confessed the sense of unpreparedness to Bill, who responded with an expression of confidence and a generosity of spirit that I greatly appreciated and immediately recognized as a gift, something I certainly hadn’t yet earned. In the years that followed, he would call from time to time—reaching out to me as he did to so many others—to offer a bolstering word or to seek advice he really didn’t need. He genuinely liked people, regardless of age, background, or education, and often would stop by the Press, usually without advance notice, to say hello and to pick up a copy of a new book. I always felt that he enjoyed the fact that everyone in the building knew and recognized him, both as a neighbor and as a former university president.

In the years from 1995-1997, Bill’s advice and connections were instrumental in the success of the Press’s 75th anniversary fund-raising campaign—our first ever. With a challenge grant from the Kenan Trust, he showed how this work is properly and effectively done. His conviction and passion for the university were, as many others have noted, hard to resist; and the Press was the happy beneficiary of his talents.

It must not have been altogether easy for him to trust the Press in the late 1990s as we worked toward publication of his biography, but he never showed any signs of worry, demonstrating a restraint that I doubt many could pull off under the circumstances. After the book was published, his obvious pleasure in the end result was a wonderful reward for the hard work of so many at the Press, from Matt Hodgson who had conceived of the idea right through to the younger staff in editorial, design/production, marketing, and order fulfillment.

Then, in the first few years of the new century, at Bill’s urging, his longtime friend Hugh Morton brought to the Press the idea of a book of his photographs. In the end there were two such books, and Bill contributed an introduction to each. They had such fun working on these books—from the early stages of photo selection, (with David Perry, Hugh’s editor) to their promotional road trips. Bill would call me, usually early in the morning and, after his usual greeting of “Hello, neighbor,” say with an obvious twinkle in his voice, “Now, you ought to put me on the payroll; I’m working hard for the Press!” I would, of course, agree with him, and then we’d talk about their latest speaking engagement or book-signing event. He was tireless in helping make those books a success, and he was every bit as interested in their sales (and how to boost them even higher) as Hugh was.

In 2003 or 2004, when the finish line for the Encyclopedia of North Carolina was finally in sight, I asked C. D. Spangler Jr., who had recently retired as UNC president, if he would consider making a grant to the Press to support extra marketing for this extraordinary volume. To my great delight, he said he would, but there was one condition: the book should be dedicated to Bill Friday. When I called Bill, at first he demurred, speaking at some length about Dick Spangler’s many contributions to the university and to the state. It was only when I reminded Bill that the dedication was a condition of the grant that he relented: “Well, then, we need to do this for the Press.” President Spangler himself wrote the heartfelt dedication: “To Ida and William Friday, whose tireless devotion to the University of North Carolina has been of enormous benefit to North Carolina and all its citizens.”

Bill invited me to be a guest on “North Carolina People” twice during my twenty years as Press director, each time easing my stage fright with warm questions about the Press, its mission, purpose, successes, and challenges. “We want people to understand what the Press does, how important it is,” was how he put it. He often gave a VIP guest or an international visitor a copy of a Press book both as a memento of their visit and as a way to promote the Press. Over the decades—first as president of the university from 1956 to 1986 and then in all the years thereafter, right up to the last weeks of his life, Bill Friday was an advocate for UNC Press and a champion of our work and of our editorial independence.

One final and personal note: when my mother and then my father died, Bill called to offer his condolences as he did to so many other friends and acquaintances over the years. In one of those calls, when emotion overtook me, Bill gently instructed me to take a breath, take my time, and proceeded to fill the space with words perfect for the moment. Once I’d regained my composure, we talked about how hard it is to lose people you love, regardless of their age or of ours. As I watched Bill take sweet and gentle care of Ida in recent years, I found myself remembering that kind moment.

At Brooks Hall, Bill Friday will be greatly missed—as a friend, a neighbor, an adviser, and a champion. Like so many others in the university and throughout the state, we are so fortunate to have had the extraordinary opportunity to work with and to know Bill Friday. His life of service, his integrity, his values, his sense of responsibility, and his deep commitment will continue to inspire all of us connected with UNC Press.

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