William “Bill” and Ida Friday
William C. “Bill” and Ida Friday left a legacy of continually working for equal opportunity for all people, an impact which echoes in Chapel Hill and across the state.
An educator, Bill Friday is considered the father of the University of North Carolina system and is remembered nationally as a co-founder of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Ida Friday preferred to be more out of the public eye than her husband, but was an unrelenting advocate for social justice in her own right.
Born in Virginia, Bill Friday grew up in the small Gaston County town of Dallas, NC. He attended North Carolina State University (NCSU), where he was elected president of the class of 1941 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in textile engineering.
While at NCSU, he met Ida Howell, a Lumberton native who was then a student at Meredith College, a women’s college just down the road. She also graduated in 1941, with a bachelor’s degree in home economics, and the couple married. Soon after, he enlisted in the military, serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve during World War II.
Following the war, the couple moved to Chapel Hill and enrolled at the University of North Carolina. They graduated in 1948, he with a law degree and she with a master’s degree in public health.
Bill Friday then began what would become a 38-year career in higher education as the assistant dean of students at UNC-CH. Three years later, he joined the administration of the Consolidated University of North Carolina, which encompassed UNC-CH, NCSU and UNC-Greensboro. At age 37, he was named the system president on an acting basis in 1956 and permanently in 1957. He held the office for 30 years until his retirement, in 1986.
During Bill Friday’s tenure, the General Assembly expanded the university system to include the16 public institutions that conferred bachelor’s degrees, adding, just before his retirement, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
Bill Friday had a deep passion to build a university system that served all of North Carolina’s residents. By making tuition affordable, he encouraged people from all economic backgrounds to pursue higher education. In the 1960s, Friday guided the desegregation of the state university campuses.
A true believer in democracy and freedom of speech, his vision of the civil rights movement was all-encompassing. In 1963, in the midst of the Cold War, he orchestrated the repeal of the North Carolina Speaker Ban, opening up once again the possibility of communists and other controversial speakers visiting university campuses.
Bill Friday kept students at the center of his reforms. He is remembered as a warm, gregarious and engaging president, who always advocated for students – traits which served him well as he guided the university system through the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement and growing campus activism.
Ida Friday, meanwhile, was having her own impact on the community, working to empower women, expand women’s rights, and support public health. Her goal was to put women on a path to self-sufficiency, safety, and health. She was particularly active in supporting the Compass Center for Women and Families, an organization that supports women and families while trying to end domestic violence.
The Chapel Hill Preservation Society also benefitted from Ida Friday’s involvement. She worked to protect and celebrate the town’s cultural and historical heritage. A painter and sculptor, she also promoted the arts through her work with a number of North Carolina arts organizations.
Dozens of university students found that an encounter with the Fridays could be life-changing. Virginia Taylor, who was Bill Friday’s long-time assistant, said the couple hosted groups of about 20 students for a dinner at their home each spring. It was always an inspiring evening for the attendees.
“They all left feeling like they were going to be the next great leader,” Taylor said. “The Fridays made them all feel like what they were doing was really important and encouraged them to shoot for their dreams.”
It was another example of the gracious, generous couple quietly, yet effectively, building people up and strengthening the community.
Following Bill Friday’s retirement, he continued serving as host of the public television talk show North Carolina People, which he had begun. In 1989. he became the founding co-chairman of the Knight Commission, holding that position until 2005.
Among the numerous recognitions the Fridays received are the North Carolina Public Service Award, the highest honor given by the University, in 1981 and the order of the Long leaf Pine, bestowed by Governor Mike Easley in 2004 for their service to the state.
Bill Friday died in his sleep on October 12, 2012, at age 92. Fittingly, it was UNC’s University Day, marking the laying of the cornerstone at Old East residence hall, the oldest state university building in the nation.
Ida Friday followed him in death on Feb. 6, 2017, at age 97.
Today, the Fridays are memorialized through the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education, located in Chapel Hill near the UNC campus. Opened in 1991, it offers adult learners credit and noncredit course offerings and operates a conference facility, continuing the Friday’s commitment to offer opportunities to all.
By Cassandra Talabi