Cook: Friday and North Carolina were one
A wave of sorrow and fond memory washed over North Carolina last week as people learned of Bill Friday's death.
The former president of the University of North Carolina system figured in so many lives, shaping a system that has thousands of graduates in every corner of the state. We will remember him as a quiet, steady leader who set a gentlemanly standard.
"Courage, manners and decency cost a person so little," he once said. "But disregard them and see what you get."
Friday must have gotten a great deal, because he was the epitome of those qualities - courage, manners and decency. They seemed to course through his veins.
He spent his entire career in higher education - a calling sorely undervalued in today's political climate.
Bill Friday retired as head of the university system in 1986. That career alone would have made him a North Carolina icon. In retirement, though, his stature continued to grow as the state's elder statesman and moral conscience, working to raise awareness of poverty in the state and abuses in college sports.
Friday's character showed in his weekly TV show, "North Carolina People." Warm and inquisitive. Genteel yet humble. Compassionate and strong.
He came to Rowan County in 1993 to film a couple of segments. During the visit, he toured the N.C. Transportation Museum and had lunch with Elizabeth Dole, Fred Stanback, Jim Whitton and Bonnie and Fred Corriher, then president of Catawba College. Then Friday set to work on the interviews - one with Dole, the other with Fred Corriher.
But he seemed most impressed by some of Rowan's less well-known residents - the retired railroad workers who volunteered at the Spencer Shops. Post reporter Rose Post wrote that they made an impression on Friday.
"I was struck by the loyalty these people had," Friday told Rose. "They understood what the railroad did for the economy of the world and our state. They felt it when they made something move."
Former Post editor Steve Bouser was among the many who urged Friday to run for governor in 1984 - "The most exciting candidacy that never was," as the headline on Bouser's column said.
And they tried again to nudge Friday into politics in 1989, when the aftertaste of the Jesse Helms-Jim Hunt clash was still bitter. Even Friday characterized the Helms-Hunt race as one of character assassination and an "almost obscene use of money."
In a column, Bouser envisioned the kind of person who might tame the Helms machine.
"[T]he kind of Democratic candidate who stands the best chance of winning election to the Senate in 1990 is not a politician but a statesman. One who can transcend petty politics, refuse to crawl down into the gutter with Helms, and keep the debate centered on real issues. Someone who commands such universal respect and exudes such quiet strength and leadership that he could virtually shame Helms into sticking to the high road."
Friday was just such a person, Bouser said. A race against Helms would pit "a challenger who personifies the best of North Carolina against an incumbent who brings out our darker side."
Instead, Harvey Gantt got the Helms treatment in 1990. Bill Friday no doubt was glad he stayed out of it.
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.