Vets who became heroes back home
Last week many of the state’s insiders were focused on the University of North Carolina. On Friday Erskine Bowles, the new president of the university, made his first report to the university’s governing board. His outline of the challenges facing the university and the state showed the high level of his understanding of the state and the difficult tasks facing North Carolina.
During the same week there were smaller groups across the state talking about another important figure in the history of the University of North Carolina: William Dees, the first elected chair of the university’s board of governors, who died in Goldsboro.
William Friday, the first president of the unified 16-campus university, is due the largest share of credit for the successful launch of the new system of higher education in North Carolina beginning in 1971. But Friday would be the first to say that the leadership of Dees on the board and Dees’ friendship and support for President Friday were critical.
Early on, the new university system faced divisive challenges, including the establishment and governance of the new medical school at East Carolina and a dispute with the federal government over the method of desegregating North Carolina higher education.
Looking back at the complicated circumstances and the passionately held positions of the adversaries, it is hard to believe that the university system survived. In times of great challenge, university governing boards often lose confidence in their university presidents, causing leadership crises that bring down bring down presidents, good and bad.
The trust and friendship between Friday and Dees, and their close connections with other members of the university governing board, made it certain that Friday would always have the backing of important leaders in times of trouble. Although Friday had to face a set of challenges that would have been brought down most university administrators, he always survived and found a path.
Where did this close connection come from?
At lunch last week, John Sanders, retired director of the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill, reminded me of the core of friendships that developed among several World War II veterans at UNC Law School.
William Friday talked about the group on UNC-TV in response to a question from Don Curtis, who asked Friday why he decided to go to law school after the war.
‘“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 [the] 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.’”
Now that William Dees and Terry Sanford are gone from that group, we ought to remember and thank the others: William Friday; Bill Aycock, beloved former chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill; John Jordan, former state senator and chair of the university’s governing board; and Dickson Phillips, former dean of UNC Law School and retired Federal Court of Appeals judge. (Last week, my cousin Boyce Martin, also a federal judge in Louisville, Ky., told me that Phillips is a hero to many colleagues on the bench.)
As we remember and thank William Dees and his close friends, we can thank all those who served in World War II and came back to serve and build back home.
About them I wrote a few years ago: ‘“They came back from the war with more maturity, energy, confidence, practicality, open-mindedness, discipline, love of country, and competitiveness than any generation our country has ever seen.’”
Then the country gave them advanced educational opportunities never available to so many Americans before.
With that mixture of healthy traits and education, they caused an explosion of economic growth that underpins our country’s continuing prosperity and success.
The veterans of World War II are a generation to cherish, to thank, and to learn from.