RTP’s guardian angel
Bill Friday had a quiet way of making big things happen. So it was with the Research Triangle Park.
His work with RTP exemplified the way he shaped North Carolina, often from behind the scenes and with little public notice.
After Friday’s death on October 12 – University Day at UNC-Chapel Hill – he was widely recognized for his 30 years as President of the University of North Carolina system. That naturally overshadowed his contributions to RTP.
But, as The New York Times noted in its obituary, Friday was “a force behind the creation of Research Triangle Park, a university-corporate collaboration that fired North Carolina’s economy by attracting high-tech industries to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.”
Friday’s biographer, William A. Link, described Friday as “sort of a guardian angel” for RTP. Friday was present at the creation, and he nurtured RTP’s growth throughout his career. He played a key role in establishing the Research Triangle Institute and in landing the National Humanities Center at the park.
When the Park was conceived in the 1950s, Friday was an assistant to then-UNC President Gordon Gray. Link wrote that Friday was involved in the early discussions that led to the Park’s creation.
After becoming UNC President in 1956, Friday stayed in close touch with the park. He focused on maintaining a strong relationship between RTP and the university system.
George Herbert, who was the first director of the Research Triangle Institute, called Friday “a very key individual in getting the Triangle headed in the right direction.” Herbert said Friday’s “innate positive attitude and enthusiasm” and full backing were vital to RTP’s success.
In his biography, Link wrote that Friday was a “towering figure” in persuading the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to locate the National Humanities Center in RTP in 1975. After that, Link wrote, Friday “acted as a protector of the (center) during its infancy.”
Bob Geolas, President and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, was among those who attended a memorial service at for Friday on October 17. Geolas said later, “Like many North Carolinians, I’m a product of the university system that he built. And all of us who are part of the Research Triangle Park owe him a great debt.”
Geolas added, “Beyond the huge impact he had on North Carolina, Bill Friday taught us how a leader should lead. He was always kind, courteous and soft-spoken. He liked people, and you could tell it. But behind that mild exterior was a fierce commitment to education and better opportunities for everyone.
“The best way to honor Bill Friday’s life is to continue his work.”
William A. Link’s book, William Friday: Power, Purpose and American Higher Education (the University of North Carolina Press, 1995), is an excellent and engrossing account of Friday’s life and times. It won the 1995 Mayflower Cup for non-fiction.