William A. Link: Remembering Bill Friday

William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education, by William A. LinkAs North Carolinians far and wide mourn the death and celebrate the life of William Friday (1920-2012), we welcome a guest post today from William Link, author of William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education.

In the spirit of public service as Bill Friday modeled it throughout his long life, UNC Press is granting free access to an online edition of Link’s comprehensive biography for a limited time. We hope you’ll take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the remarkable career of a man dedicated to education and with a real heart for relationship building and community service.

Don’t miss, too, Doug Orr’s fond remembrance of Bill Friday, and give a listen to the podcast of Link’s appearance on WUNC’s “The State of Things” earlier this week.


Last week, North Carolina lost one of its greatest citizens, a giant in his time, and an architect of the modern UNC system. It was often said that Friday had more power and influence than any governor, and in many respects this was true. Committed to the welfare of his state, he was a person who understood modern bureaucracies, how politics worked, and how principles converged with the realities of life.

I first met Bill in November 1989, when I was a young faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A few weeks earlier, Matt Hodgson, director of UNC Press, had approached me at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Lexington, Kentucky.  I knew Matt well because UNC Press had published my first book three years earlier.  Like many first-time authors, I encountered a rough patch in the publication process, and Matt went to bat for me in navigating the shoals of reviews, revision, and publishing. Out of the blue, Matt asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book about Bill Friday. I was startled but intrigued.

I had lived in North Carolina long enough to know that Friday was a person of great impact. Three years earlier, he had stepped down as president of the UNC system, after thirty years at the helm. He was known as a person of integrity, and also as a person of considerable influence who fiercely defended the university in a sometimes hostile political environment. As a precondition—something that Matt offered right from the start—I would enjoy complete freedom to write the book, would have access to Friday and his network, and would publish the book without editorial interference. On a rainy night, I drove over to Chapel Hill and had dinner with Matt and Bill Friday at Squid’s in Chapel Hill. I was immediately charmed by the man, who exuded a kind of radiant glow, an easy ability to relate to ordinary people without a shred of arrogance, and a sense of what was important in life.

Against better advice (including the advice of my wife), I took on the task of writing this book at a busy time in my life. With two small children and a third on the way, I was also immersed in two other book projects. Still, I began work right away, into the next year. I wrote in a whirlwind, finishing a draft manuscript about three years after I started it.

Writing the book proved to be an extraordinary experience and a unique collaboration. Bill Friday’s papers were an abundant and rich resource, to be sure, but much of the book rested on oral history—conversations with about 100 people who had crossed paths with Friday from the 1930s to 1980s. This included a fascinating cast of characters: Archie Davis, a profoundly conservative man and a Wachovia executive who brought the National Humanities Center to the Research Triangle; former governor Bob Scott, with whom Friday crossed swords over university restructuring; David Tatel, Friday’s main adversary in the U.S. Office of Civil Rights; and Father Theodore Hesburgh, another giant of American higher education. Without question the best interview, aside from Bill, was Raymond Dawson, Friday’s right-hand man from the early 1970s on. Ray had a nearly photographic memory, and his memories were vividly real.

It’s not easy to write a biography of a living person, for a variety of reasons. Bill made it easy. I spent more than 40 hours interviewing him. He was unfailingly generous in offering his time, including a last round of interviews after I had written a draft of the book. We got to know each other well. I developed a habit of drinking Diet Cokes because that was what he always offered, and only recently have I shaken the habit. In the interviews, he combined an easy manner with precise efficiency. Our interview times came to match the duration of the 90 minute cassette tapes I used at the time; on several occasions, right after he indicated that the interview was over, the tape machine clicked off.

I can’t say that Bill always had a precise memory. Some of his memories were vivid—especially about his childhood. Some had the structured polish of a story often repeated.  He was sometimes evasive about civil rights issues—how the desegregation of the University occurred in the 1940s and 1950s, and how he dealt with the federal government’s attempt to impose a model of desegregation. Other recollections were sharper—his experiences in World War II, his apprenticeship with Frank Porter Graham, his difficult position during the Speaker Ban, and his personal relationships with different people, great and small.

Bill never saw the book until it appeared in print. Though there must be things in it that he didn’t like, he was always enthusiastic in describing it.

It isn’t difficult to assess Friday’s influence. Surely, he was one of the two or three more important public figures in 20th-century North Carolina, and one of the two or three people, along with Clark Kerr of the University of California, who helped to shape the modern American university. His monument is the University of North Carolina itself, and its continued vitality in the life of the state was his passion. There are few people who had as important an impact, who were as persistently concerned about the welfare of the state, who possessed as clear a vision, and who practiced as effective an ability to accomplish things. It’s hard to imagine North Carolina without Bill Friday’s protective umbrella. He will be missed.


William A. Link is Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History at the University of Florida. He is author or editor of thirteen books, including William Friday: Power, Purpose, and American Higher Education and Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism. His latest book, Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War’s Aftermath will be published by UNC Press in May 2013.