Cook: Friday spoke for the children
"Poverty smells like a kerosene stove."
Bill Friday borrowed that line from Albemarle writer Ruth Moose when he talked to a gathering of the state's newspaper editors and publishers in Asheville in 1996.He was there to pick up the N.C. Press Association's top award, North Carolinian of the Year, and he used the opportunity to address a matter that was heavy on his mind - "North Carolina's forgotten agenda."
He was talking about fighting the state's rising tide of poverty, a cause he had taken up full-time since retiring as president of the University of North Carolina system.
As dignitaries memorialized Friday this week, I couldn't help but feel a pillar had slipped from beneath the state's long tradition of progressivism. Critics have been chipping away at the structure for years, but strong people like Friday held up progressivism as a guiding force in the state. He gave it a voice and a heart.
Friday's 1996 message resounds even more loudly today.
He recalled working at a machinery shop during the Depression for 18 and a half cents an hour, 56 hours a week. The New Deal came along and he got a raise to 37 and a half cents an hour. "I've been a Democrat ever since," he said.
He marched off to war and was lucky enough to survive, he said. He took his place in a generation that was committed to "work to give back what had been given to us."
Freedom. Opportunity. A helping hand for others.
He felt a companionship between the press and the university during his years there, he said. Both championed education, freedom and equality.
In retirement, Friday became executive director of the Kenan Charitable Trust, but it was not just an office job. He said he had served hot food in soup kitchens, sat in on literacy classes, visited shelters, seen farmers face foreclosure.
Poverty. Whatever its smell and taste and feel to the people who live in it, poverty escapes the notice of today's decision makers and opinion leaders.
Friday spoke of a "have-not world that is populated with good people, decent people - people who do not have the skills to compete in today's economy.
So they slip and fall further behind.
Friday ticked off the statistics of the day - 900,000 North Carolinians were living in poverty, 800,000 could not communicate effectively, one of every three had no health insurance and 250,000 children woke up hungry each morning. The numbers are much higher today.
"Who speaks for these children?" Friday asked. "Who speaks for the displaced and disheartened?"
This is North Carolina's forgotten agenda, he said.
Who is seeing that these people are getting the education and training to support themselves? Who is helping them get hope in their hearts?
Friday touted the progress North Carolina had made in the last half of the 20th century - better health, better jobs, a reputation for high technology - and said the state had succeeded because leaders stepped forward. They saw need and they addressed it.
What happened to that leadership? Friday said leaders had become more concerned about cutting taxes and building prisons than about the betterment of people. Instead of encouraging and strengthening the institutions that drove North Carolina's progress, legislators were cutting the legs off.
He didn't defend just the university system. He defended the state he loved and the decent, hard-working people who lingered on the bottom rungs of the ladder to success. Who speaks for those people now?
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.