PHILANTHROPY JOURNAL: a column – A voice for progress – Bill Friday embodies public service

By Todd Cohen

Arriving at Chapel Hill as a student from the Northeast in the fall of 1967, I at first was taken by the absolute physical beauty of the place. But in the four years that followed, I was transformed by the deep sense of public service that defines the campus.

The president of the UNC system during those rebellious years was William Friday. I was too young and headstrong then to understand it, but change takes time, and Bill Friday has been a master of making change happen over time.

These days, as a reporter, I write about change. Specifically, I write about philanthropy, which is the doing of good deeds.

For many of us, philanthropy may call to mind industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who made lots of money and gave lots to charity.

Philanthropy certainly involves money. But doing good is much more than contributing dollars to address problems or enrich our culture. At its heart, philanthropy is about working to make our communities better places to live and work.

Last fall, Bill Friday retired from his second career as executive director of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust – a job he had held since retiring as UNC president in 1986.

Also last fall, Friday was recognized for lifetime achievement in philanthropy by the Triangle chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives.

Unlike many of my generation who worked feverishly for good over the short span of their student days and later turned their attention instead to family and career, Bill Friday made public service his life’s work.

As president of the UNC system for 30 years and then as executive director of the Kenan Trust in Chapel Hill for 13 years, Bill Friday oversaw and nurtured the education of generations of North Carolinians.

Philanthropy is about stewardship – caring for and cultivating precious resources. For more than four decades, Bill Friday has been North Carolina’s leading steward.

As a young graduate of North Carolina State University, he went to work for Frank Porter Graham, the legendary UNC president who transformed the university into a force and voice for progress. Graham believed that students and teachers who enjoyed the university’s benefits should give something back to the state.

He inspired and trained generations of students and faculty members who went on to become leaders in business, government, education and philanthropy.

Those leaders, in turn, inspired and trained younger leaders in a kind of chain reaction that continues to this day.

Frank Graham’s practical idealism has informed Bill Friday’s role over the past half-century as one of North Carolina’s leading lights.

Bill Friday, now 79, can’t seem to stay retired. Just recently, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Friday as chairman of the new Golden Leaf Foundation, which will spend millions from the huge settlement with the tobacco industry to do good for people in our state.

When Friday finally retires, if ever, his philanthropy will continue to burn bright in the hearts and minds of thousands of North Carolinians who work each day to rid our state of poverty, racism, poor health, violence and illiteracy.

The job of a philanthropist is to heal and repair our communities, and to help people help themselves. Thanks to Bill Friday, North Carolina is rich with people working hard every day to do better.

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