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This State's Great Loss

We didn't get a chance to mention how sorry we were to see William Friday had died, or how much we respect his life, career and love for UNC.

You don't have to be in North Carolina long to find yourself contemplating the man's shadow. With other men of his era, like Terry Sanford, Friday really shaped this state into its present form.

Those of us who live here and identify with universities primarily through athletics tend to judge the other schools on that basis. Yet the UNC system belongs to all of us, and UNC-Chapel Hill has contributed more to this state than any other school. That's partly because of simple longevity, partly because of a much larger alumni base, and partly because Dr. Friday, working with other visionaries of his era, built a stunning educational system in North Carolina. Just look at how many on-ramps it has: you have a reasonably adequate K-12 system. In some places, there are high schools which offer college credit. You can start at Rowan Tech or Wake Tech or any number of community colleges, get your first two years done for next to nothing and transfer into the UNC system.

Tens of thousands of people have done so and vastly improved their state and their own lives. How much do we owe to this man? You know, look around: you see people who have learned databasing, people who have become doctors and engineers, people who have learned English well enough to adapt to American society and thrive.

What Dr. Friday and his fellow visionaries built is incredible and we are proud to say we are in the unrepayable debt of likely the best man UNC has ever produced.

As he declined in recent months, he was sure to have known about the problems in UNC athletics, a program he helped to become honorable again after the serious problems which occurred in the 1950s in basketball under Frank McGuire.

He was a lifelong critic of big time college sports and pushed hard for reform.

Regrettably, he was not as successful at this as he was with the overall growth of education in this state. But he warned us; he was relentless about pursuing a better path.

For UNC, the best way to honor Dr. Friday, to truly show respect, is to put that particular house into order. It's sad to think that Friday left us while contemplating this destruction, this rot, at his most beloved place. We hope that, very soon, honor will be restored much as he did in the 1960s.

His gift to the state as a whole is to, more than anyone we can think of, to embody the state's motto: To Be Rather Than To Seem. There was never any bluster, never any falseness, never any attempt to be anything other than exactly what he was: a humble, smart, principled kid who grew up in Gaston County and who, when he had a chance to be great, never, ever lost track of his fundamental goodness. He was one of our very best.

Governor Perdue properly ordered the state flag to half-mast. The better question though is how the state should honor Dr. Friday.

Our suggestion? Refocus, again, on his fundamental goal of making education available to as many people as want to take advantage of it as possible and at a reasonable cost. It's time to reorganize our priorities and to make education something other than a political football.

It's time, in other words, for the rest of us to adopt his vision and to carry it as far into the future as we can.

Two facts also worth noting: Dr. Friday was a graduate of N.C. State with a degree in textile manufacturing. And secondly, his hometown of Dallas, population 4,448 as of the 2010 census, is now home to Gaston College, part of the state community college system, which means that the students who pass through W.C. Friday Middle School and North Gaston High have an inexpensive and nearby way to tap into their hopes and dreams.

Well done, sir.