Douglas M. Orr: Reflections on Bill Friday

Today the North Carolina community gathered for a memorial service for William Friday, who died last week after a lifetime of service to UNC, the state of North Carolina, and public education nationwide. The service will be rebroadcast this evening on UNC-TV at 7pm ET.

We welcome the following guest post from one of Bill’s many friends and admirers, Douglas M. Orr Jr., whose friendship with Friday was touched in part through a project with UNC Press. We hope to publish additional remembrances of Bill here on the UNC Press blog, and encourage you to leave comments about your own remembrances of him in the comment section below.


Like so many others, I was the beneficiary of Bill Friday’s support and mentorship over the span of my entire professional career. While there are countless features of the Bill Friday life that can he highlighted, I would like to recite two: his abiding love and knowledge of our state, and his common touch with people.

As to the first, I recall stopping by to see him in the 1990s when I was researching our UNC Press publication, The North Carolina Atlas: Portrait for a New Century. While I particularly wanted to hear Bill’s reflections about his 30 years at the helm of the UNC system, we wound up talking about the breadth and life of his North Carolina experiences: growing up in a small Gaston County town, working under UNC President Frank Porter Graham, the state’s rapidly changing landscape, public policy, politics, memorable people he had interviewed for his UNC-TV program, and so it went. Then he reminded me, “You need to get this right with The North Carolina Atlas.” And he commented, “My next door neighbor the UNC Press is a steward of our state’s literary legacy and deserves the best.” Upon publication, the Atlas sold many copies through two printings and was placed in every library and school throughout the state. A Bill Friday endorsement was displayed on the back cover.

Over the course of his career Bill Friday moved in the top circles of higher education, and from the Governor’s Mansion to the White House, he always possessed a common touch with people. On one of his visits to Warren Wilson College, as head of the William R. Kenan Jr. Fund, he asked for a round of interviews regarding our application for a Kenan grant. He especially wanted to meet with a group of students, and I’ll never forget his sitting on the lawn during a warm summer day, surrounded by a group of students, carrying on an animated conversation. Later he said it was a highlight of his summer.

Bill was a most helpful reference for me when I applied for the presidency at Warren Wilson College, after working with him during my 23 years at UNC Charlotte. On my initial day in the office, July 1, 1991, the first item on my desk I opened was a little handwritten letter from Bill Friday: “Good morning, Mr. President. . . .” I still have that letter.

Goodbye and Godspeed, Mr. President.

Douglas M. Orr Jr. is President Emeritus of Warren Wilson College and coeditor of The North Carolina Atlas: Portrait for a New Century.