The next Bill Friday

by DG Martin

‘“Who is going to be the next Bill Friday?’”

At an event to celebrate 35 years of UNC-TV’s weekly program ‘“North Carolina People,’” someone looked me in the eye and asked that question.

Although we know Mr. Friday best as the president emeritus of the University of North Carolina and the host of ‘“North Carolina People,’” the questioner was worried about something else that Mr. Friday means to our state.

‘“Who is going to stand above politics, get the attention of the decision-makers, and always push for the things to make North Carolina better?’” he continued.

The simple answer to his question is that there is not going to be another William Friday.

Some people will tell you that the center of momentum for action in North Carolina is not in the state capitol in Raleigh or the business metropolis of Charlotte. Instead, they say, it is a small office overlooking the old campus in Chapel Hill where William Friday spends much of his time. Streams of visitors come to seek his advice and blessings on their projects. But he does not wait for visitors. Most days he will spend several hours on the telephone ‘“with old friends’” finding out about their families and what they are doing for North Carolina.

He could be calling the governor, or the leaders of the legislature, or the state’s education leaders, or the editorial writers of the state’s large newspapers, or any one of hundreds of his longtime friends who can make things happen. By keeping in touch with such people, he knows which ones of them to call when a good project needs help or a good idea needs a little push.

Friday has been building and working this network of people all his life ‘— all 85 years of it. The network of trusted friends grew during his 30-year presidency of the University of North Carolina and was an important reason for his success.

Now, 20 years after his retirement as university president, Friday and his network keep on serving North Carolina.

So my friend who is worried about ‘“the next Bill Friday’” ought to remember that even if we could replace Mr. Friday, his network of trusted friends took many years to build.

Understanding that there is not going to be a ‘“next Bill Friday’” and that his network cannot be transferred to anyone else, is there anybody who comes close?

Are there others who know the state well, have a keen sense of politics, have a large group of trusted friends and contacts who can make things happen ‘— and have the time, energy, and commitment to work for full time for the interest of North Carolina?

What about our former governors? They have had to build statewide groups of friends, and they certainly have to study the state’s problems and opportunities. All our living former governors have built additional areas of expertise. Robert Scott served as president of the community college system. Jim Holshouser is the senior member of the university’s board of governors. Jim Martin serves in the health care policy and research area.

Jim Hunt practices law, farms and keeps his hands busy in educational policy issues. He has his own network of key people he can call for advice and help. He may not be the ‘“next Bill Friday,’” but the two men share a continuing commitment to make the state better. And, it should be noted that some people already ask a similar ‘“who is going to be the next’…’” question about Jim Hunt.

Another person we should expect to play a Bill Friday-type role is the new university president, Erskine Bowles. Over a lifetime of business, political, and public service activities, Bowles has built his own network of friends who trust him, and who, like Friday’s friends, have a hard time saying no to a request for help.

Bowles may not be ‘“the next Bill Friday.’” But I will be surprised if, a few years from now, somebody doesn’t come up to me with a worried look on his face and ask, ‘“Who is going to be the next Erskine Bowles?’”