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Some 20 years ago, C.D. Spangler Jr. was driving through Dallas, N.C., the boyhood home of Bill Friday, when he decided he wanted to see the high school where Friday had graduated decades before becoming the first and longest-serving president of the University of North Carolina.

Spangler stopped first at a roadside store for a Coca Cola and a pack of Lance crackers, where he came across a group of older men who said they knew Friday.

One told him that Friday had been a catcher playing Legion ball and was once good enough to make the majors. “He paused and he said, ‘You know, it’s a shame. If Bill had stuck it out in baseball, he could have made something of himself.’”

During the Oct. 17 memorial service for Friday, Spangler drew a connection between the skills Friday honed as a university president with the abilities required of a good catcher.

As a catcher, you are loaded down with heavy equipment and a face mask as you squat down waiting for the pitcher to throw a ball at you at 90 miles an hour, while the batter swings a piece of wood inches from your head, Spangler said. You are the only player to see the entire field, and the only one involved on every play.

“That’s what Bill Friday did as the president of the university,” Spangler said. “He saw the whole of North Carolina, and he knew that education was the only way out of poverty for our people.”

Friday Memorial 2

The Memorial Hall crowd shared memories of Friday.

It was that vision, that passion for service that put Friday in a league of his own as an education leader, Spangler said.

“I have never, ever seen anyone even in the same ballpark with Bill,” he said. “He simply was the most significant educational leader in North Carolina in the 20th century.”

Friday Memorial 3

UNC-Chapel Hill Chamber Singers performed.

Read more from the University Gazette coverage of the memorial.

Published October 17, 2012.