William Friday: Interview Transcript

Caldwell: John T. Caldwell, Former Chancellor, NC State
Friday: William Friday
Curtis: Don Curtis, WUNC-TV

Announcer: North Carolina People is brought to you by Wachovia. Banking, investments and financial services for individuals businesses and corporations. Wachovia, we are here, let's get started.

The Caldwell Award is presented by the North Carolina Humanities Council each year to one person whose work testifies to the importance of the humanities in our state and our nation. The award is named for John T. Caldwell, former chancellor of N.C. State University and first recipient of the award in 1990.

Caldwell: There are a lot of reasons why research ought to go on, on a University campus. That is where you train your next generation of investigators who push those frontiers of human knowledge and the human mind back and just keep pushing the salience here and then bringing up the rest of it, this is the basis of human progress in all dimensions. The universities of this country are the secret of the greatness of the United States, the whole system and we can't afford to neglect them.

Announcer: There have been nine recipients since that first award. John Hope Franklin in 1991, Doris Betts in 1992, Sam T. Ragan in 1993, Ann Firor Scott in 1994, John M. Ehle in 1995, Reverend William Finlator in 1996, Charles B. Kuralt in 1997, and Dorothy Spruill Redford in 1998. This year's Caldwell Award goes to William Friday, who is our guest tonight on North Carolina People. Here is Don Curtis.

Curtis: Hello, welcome to a very special edition of North Carolina People. For nearly 30 years, Bill Friday has been coming into your living room with interesting interviews with interesting folks. Well, on this program, we get to ask the questions to the man who's been asking them. My name is Don Curtis. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to introduce to you a man who needs no introduction, especially on this program, Dr. Bill Friday. And so I get to say welcome to your program, I guess.

Friday: Thank you, Don, and I say for all of us at university television how deeply grateful we are of this great network.

Curtis: No, no, no, we're going to talk about you. I knew you'd try to do that, I was warned about that. You know, one of the fascinating things to me as I've looked at folks who come to greatness, how many of them come from small towns. You came from a small town near my hometown of Bessemer City, Dallas, North Carolina. Tell me about growing up in Dallas, what was special about it?

Friday: We used to play Bessemer City in baseball, basketball. Had a great left-handed pitcher named Hoody Briggs who was a great star of the American Legion in those days. And back there in 1937, you know, they played for the World Series Championships in Gastonia. Small towns were wonderful, Don. You knew everybody, everybody cared about everybody else, and in those years the Great Depression was upon us so everybody had to help everybody else and so you learned lots of wonderful lessons.

Curtis: You mentioned the Depression. What was it like growing up during the Depression era and what kind of impact do you think that's had on you and the rest of your career.

Friday: Well, there's no doubt about the fact that it has an impact upon you. You learn what adversity means, you do without. But you didn't suffer too much because everybody else did without. But there are memories that are so vivid to you even today. I had a classmate that sat beside me in the 11th grade, I remember. He'd come to class every morning and he had taken the grocery bag that he'd gotten from the store and torn it into four pieces and that was his notebook paper. And he had one pencil. And I had two pencils because my father was an accountant at the time. And this is the way it was. But every mill closed, every bank failed and the people were very, very poor. And you can't help that, in later life, you are responsive to deprivation to disadvantage, and you reach out just as I know your network has done with this terrible flood we've had right here in our own state. You become sensitive to these things and I think that is very, very rewarding to you in a way, because while adversity is not easy it is a great teacher.

Curtis: Bill, I suspect that no one when they are in high school or in grammar school, when they are thinking about what they want to turn out to be thinks, 'I'm going to be the President of the University of North Carolina.' What did you want to be?

Friday: A baseball player. I was in American Legion Baseball. I played on the first team that Cherryville had and the American Legion competition. I was coached by the great Jack Kiser. And you know there was no television in those days, you just played baseball almost all the time when you weren't working, and almost all of us had to work. In those days you worked 56 hours a week, you got off at 1:00 on Saturday and you ran home and put on your baseball uniform and played the rest of the afternoon and that was the way it was. But you dreamed of those things. And one of our teammates, not mine but in that area at the time, was Buddy Lewis who went on to be third baseman for the Washington Senators. And every mill had a great team, it was just fun.

Curtis: You were a catcher.

Friday: That's right.

Curtis: So, you could have been a sophisticated Yogi Berra.

Friday: Ha, I don't know about that. That knuckle right there I fractured on the Fourth of July in 1937, playing Charlotte. And we had a raw bone country pitcher who could throw a ball 95 miles an hour, but as wild as a jackleg and I reached down to catch an errant pitch and I paid for it.

Curtis: Now, from Dallas you went to Wake Forest, when it was still in Wake Forest.

Friday: I got a tuition scholarship from that great institution. A legendary figure there, Dean Daniel Bryan, my dad took me up there in our little Model-A Ford one day and Dean Bryan looked up at me, he had those big, old, shaggy eyebrows and he said, 'You want to go to school, son?' and I said, 'I certainly do.' So, he wrote out a $50 tuition scholarship, which in those days was a lot of money. And that was the way I got the chance to go to college and I have obviously never forgotten him. And years later, Don, one time when we were filling the board of Western Carolina University, I called his daughter and I told her that story and I said, 'Now, I want you to do something.' So, I asked her to be a trustee in Western Carolina University, and she was and a very good one. She's married to Boyd Owens who was a legendary athlete at Wake Forest in those days.

Curtis: Now, then you transferred to North Carolina State.

Friday: I tried, my dad was in the textile business and that seemed a natural succession, so I was there till 1941. My class graduated and we all marched off the platform straight into the military.

Curtis: Into the military, so many people had that experience. Then you ended up in law school. What made you want to go to law school?

Friday: Well, you get into an experience like that war put us all in, you were thrown with so many different people from all over everywhere, not only United States, but foreign countries. And you realize how much you need all the education you can get. And I had always had an inkling to want to study law. And my wife Ida, wanted to get more education herself, so we agreed we'd come back . I had a great experience. I came back here with Terry Sanford and Bill Aycock and John Jordan and William Dees and Dickson Phillips, a legendary group of people. We all went straight through and stuck together ever since, worked on things in this state.

Curtis: That was, there was a whole group of special people, Charlie Justice and Andy Griffith, and almost all of them had had their career interrupted by the military.

Friday: That's right, Don, and in those days the minimum was three years of exposure, usually. I know I was in 44 months. Bill Aycock, I think, was four years but he was in the Bulge with General Patton, he was a Colonel there. But it was a wonderful group. But there again you see, this was a generation that moved through the Depression and had the three, four years of this and by the time we all got back here we were 27, 28 years old, married and people who really wanted to get on with the work. And I say very proudly that our class, when we took the bar exam, no one failed.

Curtis: Now, you got out of law school and started looking for a job, but you ended up being Assistant Dean of Student Affairs.

Friday: Well, see, before I had gone to the service I was in that role at NC State. And in that capacity I had met Fred Weaver who was the Dean here. The reason I took the appointment was Ida had to stay here four more months to fill out a commitment for her scholarship so I said, 'Okay, it's a temporary job, I'll stay.' And that was 42 years ago and I haven't left. But it was a privilege to be a part of what goes on here, Don. It really was.

Curtis: Now, this is what I find fascinating. You were Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and then six years later you are the head man. You are the president. How did you accomplish that in six years?

Friday: Well, it was one of those strokes of good luck, I guess, if you want to put it that way. But when I came here and got down into that office, Mr. Gray was President, Billy Carmichael was the Vice President. They had a Chief financial Officer and Dr. Perks was the Academic Officer. I became Mr. Gray's assistant. Well, in one interval of time there, Mr. Gray went back to Washington, Dr. Perks took over the Board of Education, Billy Carmichael had already been acting president once before, so there was no one left, so they gave me the opportunity. And that was in 1956.

Curtis: So, at 37, or thereabouts, you were president.

Friday: That's right.

Curtis: Now, the university of course was a different instrument, then, than it is now.

Friday: Terribly so.

Curtis: And, let's talk a little bit about the development of the University from that point. Because you had three campuses then, I believe.

Friday: Yes, well, it went, that's true, and Dr. Graham, Frank Graham, took it over in 1931 under the leadership of Max Gardner as Governor. The idea there was that the state was suffering so economically, it was more a matter of economics than educational administration. We went along with that to, oh, it was in the 60s, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte became a reality. Once that happened, then the other ends of the state, Asheville and Wilmington got involved, and by the end of the 60s all three of those had become parts of the university. So, we had a six campus operation. We had a Board of Higher Education. Always these things overlap and interlock and cause stress points, even with the best of intentions. So, in 1970s the General Assembly decided, well, we'll complete the process that began in 1931. And all the state funded, degree-granting institutions were put under the University, the Board was reconstituted, all the structure had to be rebuilt. We were in the middle then of a powerful law suit with the federal government over Title VI. We'd had all kinds of stress points. It was not an easy time to be here. But it was quite a challenge.

Curtis: Well, I can imagine trying to please 16 campuses and 16 sets of alumni, all of whom had great pride in their institution, it was not an easy task either.

Friday: No, but I got all the family together, all the 16 chancellors together, and my principle colleagues and I would meet once a month. And we had a standing arrangement which was that I will never surprise you with anything going to the board, you don't surprise us, and we'll work in harmony the best we can. Now, we'll agree to disagree when we have to, but we all understood, we had to make it work because the state wanted it to work. It was the only way we could guarantee access to higher education in a way that the state deserved to have. It was a great adventure, Don in a lot of ways because no one knew how to do this. We sent trustees to California and Wisconsin and New York state to look at other systems. And the splendid work of people like Raymond Dawson and Felix Joyner, John Sanders and gosh I could go on, Roy Carroll, Cleon Thompson, we brought a system together. It had to work on a trial and error basis for a while, and then it began to have its own rhythm. And I think in the 1980s it was really recognized as one of the strongest systems in the country.

Curtis: I guess there had to be some real defining moments, key moments that you can look back on and say, 'If we had taken a different direction, things might radically have been changed.' What were those defining times?

Friday: Well, I think the most pivotal one was that decision in 1970, 1971, because it was then that all the responsible people in the universities all over the state acknowledged we had to do something to give our state what it deserved to have. We sat down and in that spirit of cooperative effort and give-and-take.but some other critical points there, it was decided that every institution would have a strong liberal arts program, whatever its teacher training traditions might have been, this is what the returning veteran was looking for. And, Don, this country at that time experienced something it never experienced before and that was the GI bill literally transformed the university structure of the United States, in volume. But look what it did for the economy, turning out all these well-qualified people. So, the merger itself, the adaptations within it, and the harmony that developed out of it, those were the three things that, I think, a lot of credit has to go to the institution of chiefs. They, like I, felt a very deep sense of loyalty to the state and we wanted to give back, help out.

Curtis: I've heard you talk so often about Dr. Frank Porter Graham who I know was one of your heroes. Tell us a little bit about him.

Friday: Well, he was a truly remarkable person. I think he is charged with more things than he ever thought of doing in his life, but Frank Graham was to Terry Sanford and that generation and to my generation the man who sort of focused on the needs and activities of citizens. He was a great believer in public service, give back something of yourself. We can't all be takers. And he was a man who had a strong sense of human values, of the purposes of being and what you do with your life, be well qualified to earn a living, do a good job as a businessman, but do something more, a little bit more in your community or in your church. These were the things he believed fundamentally and he did here. And we didn't always agree. He didn't agree with a lot of things that I did in reorganizing the University, I'm sure, because they weren't what he did in the 1930s. But in the end he was a great mentor.

Curtis: October 23 the North Carolina Humanities Council awarded the Caldwell award, and I know you asked me not to talk about any of these accomplishments, but I've got to mention this one, because so many of the people who have received this award are folks that you know and North Carolina people. One of them, of course, the namesake, John Caldwell. He is another person that you have a great association with.

Friday: I'll tell you, he was an incredible personality. And I'm very proud of the fact that I was the man that brought him to North Carolina, because I invited him to come be chancellor at NC State. We'd been friends before, but John and I had 18 years of what I feel was one of the great eras in the history of North Carolina State University. He was a truly remarkable person and I'm so glad that the Humanities Council has perpetuated his memory by this kind of recognition, this kind of annual tribute to him for what he did. He put a sense of pride and energy and quality into the institution that was greatly needed. And he was in every sense a real leader.

Curtis: When I was a student at Chapel Hill, you probably remember this series, we had on campus a series called the Last Lecture Series. And the premise, I think, we would ask some of the better more popular professors to roll all their thoughts into one lecture, what they would like to pass on if they only had one lecture left. If we ask you to do one last lecture, what would be some of the points that you would try to get across?

Friday: Well, I heard two of those lectures. I went in and kibitzed, read about it in the paper. I think the university experience, Don, is to hope you keep saying to yourself, 'I want to make a difference.' That is what we're here for, to contribute. I think the experience that one is privileged to have as a college student is to learn more about the world. The difference today is that you can't confine that to just North Carolina anymore. Everything you do relates to other nations, other cultures. Look at American business organizations, they make more money overseas, than they do at home now, Coca-Cola for example. But we're world-involved, whether we want to accept it or not. Food supply and all. That says that to qualify yourself, really work at staying abreast of things but not being obsessed about it, but know what is happening and be a part of it. The other is, I think it is so, what this area and what we all need now is leadership, people really committed to getting into the nitty gritty of making the have-not world a lot better for the thousands of people that don't enjoy the advantages that the rest of us do. I think this is the greatest need we have, in the country as well as in our state. And it is very rewarding to see the response to this terrible tragedy, of companies, individuals, your radio system, universities, everybody is trying to do something here. Well, this is what you call fulfilling the life span, I think. To me it is the way you measure what you've done with your life and you don't really get the full joy of it if you only take away.

Curtis: What do you think makes North Carolina special?

Friday: It is its people. Gracious me, we have never been a wealthy state, we have never been a state that was self-aggrandizing and all kinds of things. But what is so wonderful here is that we have an atmosphere of open and free discussion. We've had the strenuous arguments, but if you look back across the history of the state, names like William Louis Poteat, Sam Ervin and all these great debaters who weren't afraid to take on an issue, well, North Carolina cultivates that. And another thing it does is we have, we really have three different regions in our state, it so refreshing. People in the mountains are quite different from people out at the coast. But, gosh, you can enjoy them. Go visit them. I think our state is now getting to be the place where most people want to come and visit. I've noticed that tourism is now creeping up there to the number one industry. Well, this is what it is. But goodness, we are so blessed with all the natural endowment that we have, mountains, rivers, beaches, seas. But most of all it is the spirit of the people I think.

Curtis: Well, you've walked with governors and presidents and artists and authors and craftsmen and all sorts of folks. And many of them have been North Carolina people. That's been a very special contribution you've made to the state.

Friday: Well, it has been my great advantage because I get to sit and listen to people talk about what they've done. And I'll tell you, this state is so rich with the resources like that. You can sit and talk with Andy Griffith one day, Billy Graham the next, and a brickmaker over here in this county. Or like I did not too long ago down on Harker's Island with a lady who was just determined to preserve the culture of that community. Well, this is an experience few people can have. I'm very grateful for it.

Curtis: I want to skip back and ask you, back in the early 60s you had some pretty hard decisions to make about basketball.

Friday: Oh, yes. Well, it was one of those very tragic times when it got out of control. Gamblers got involved and the law enforcement people came to me and said, 'You've got a problem here and here's what it is, and you've got to deal with it. And we mean deal with it.' Well, they left no alternative. When people threaten the lives of other people you have to either eliminate the problem or try to put people in jail who would be that way. But there was no other recourse. You know, sport is a part of our culture. It is very important to every American. I enjoy it as much as anybody. But you have to play within certain rules and you have to live within certain prescribed conditions. And I found people that I've worked with like Les Robinson, Dean Smith, all these people want to do the right thing. It is the fans that have got to stop and think, now, what are we doing to this? Because we demand too much these days, we pressure too much. And you can kill the goose that lays the egg.

Curtis: I know that, I know I'm skipping about now but one thing that I wanted to get in because I know it is very special to you, let's talk about your family for a minute here, your sweet wife.

Friday: Oh my, Ida and I, we met at NC State back there in 1940.

Curtis: She's from Lumberton.

Friday: Yes, and she went to Meredith. And in 1941, she's a real public servant too, she's given much of her life to many things like the Women's Center here in Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Symphony. She's now a member of the Governor's Commission on Heart Disease. Always been that way. But we have three wonderful daughters. One lives in London, is an attorney. Another is in theatre in New York. The oldest one is here, is a nurse in the medical school hospital. Francis, Mary and Betsy. We love them dearly.

Curtis: North Carolina People. You've done somewhere around, by my calculations, 1,500 interviews. So, you are bound to have had some surprises in that program. What were some of the surprises?

Friday: Oh my. Bobby Dobbs, who is the current producer of this program, and I haven't had too many. But one time we were over in old Swain Hall, which is familiar to you, and the wall fell down one time. We just said, 'Excuse the interruption' and kept right on going. And another time your friend and mine, Dick Snavely, thought we ought to do a program with children at Christmas. Well, we did it. They came in and said the tape didn't, they had to do it over. Halfway through that second take, Don, half those children were sound asleep. We had a terrible time trying to make it go but.

Curtis: You can't count on old folks and children.

Friday: I tell you, the lesson you learn so quickly is don't ask a question that can be answered yes or no. Because if you do you have to think of 40 more faster than you can think. As voluble a soul as Robert House pulled that on me and I had this when we first started this program. I was down to question number 18 in a list of 25, ten minutes had gone by and I was terrified. So, I thought about his book, he'd written about his experience in the military. And I said, 'Well, what did you mean about this scene with American cheese.' Well, it was ten minutes before I got another question to him, he started telling this story, but that suited me fine.

Curtis: We've got about a minute. You were surely instrumental in the formation of UNC-TV. What did you see in 1955 and how has it evolved. Has it come out like you thought it would?

Friday: Well, it's much greater than everybody ever dreamed, Don. It is an enormously important and valuable tool in American culture today, and certainly in North Carolina where 98% of our people have access to it. The great challenge now is can we go to the digital transmission system. I don't think there's any option, we've got to do it. We turn the network over [to] the schools every morning, five days a week, and we do so much adult education as it is. So, it is now not an option, it is an essential. I'm very proud of it.

Curtis: The North Carolina People broadcast has meant a lot to you personally and has given you the opportunity to talk to 1,500 people, all of whom are absolutely fascinating.

Friday: Well, they are, Don, and were. You get your comeuppance every once in a while. This lady walked up to me one day and she got right up about that close and she said, 'You that fellow that does that program?' And I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' And she said, 'You know something, you don't look half as fat in real life.' So, I learned that I'm not a teacher all the time.

Curtis: Well, time is running out. I've got lots and lots of questions I'd love to ask, but I would like to say this on behalf of all the citizens of North Carolina. Thank you so much for all that you've done for the University, for the people of the state, for the state itself. And all that you continue to do. You are indeed one of North Carolina's priceless gems.

Friday: Well, you are very kind, Don, but it is a privilege really and I'm thankful for every moment of it and I can say truthfully that I've enjoyed the run.

Curtis: Well, you'll be back next week with another interesting guest, not as interesting as you, I suspect, but another interesting guest on North Carolina People, right here on UNC-TV. So, till next week, have a good week.