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“They are trying to eat Big Bird”

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, April 25, 2011

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Chapel Hill, NC - The hundreds of William Friday’s friends and fans who gathered to hear him speak last week might not have guessed that the institutions he worked so hard to build were threatened by the just-released legislative budget proposals.

But he gave them a big clue when he opened his remarks with, “They are trying to eat Big Bird.”

The luncheon gathering, hosted by UNC-TV, celebrated the 40th anniversary of Friday’s television program, “North Carolina People,” and the approximately 2,000 people who have been his guests, one of them every week on UNC-TV since 1971.

Friday is 90 years old. So people are wondering how much longer the program will continue. But, as Friday has scaled back some activities, his enjoyment of and commitment to the program has increased. Folks at UNC-TV say that they are already planning for a 45th anniversary party five years from now.

But it was not always that way. Friday told his audience that it all started when his friend and colleague Jay Jenkins persuaded him, over his objections, to host a program with four living governors. That program was a success. Jenkins and UNC-TV director John Young pushed him to do a one-on-one interview. He did, and did it again and again every week, ever since.

His comments last week were vintage “Bill Friday,” self deprecating and so respectful of the people he was addressing.

“This occasion is about you and is not about me.

“You know,” he said, “former UNC President Dick Spangler was visiting in Dallas [in Gaston County where Friday grew up] and stopped in a filling station where a group of men were gathered. ‘Do you all know Bill Friday?’ Spangler asked. ‘Yep,’ they answered. ‘Didn’t he play baseball?’ Spangler continued.

“‘Yep, and if he had stuck with baseball he might have amounted to something.’”

Friday continued to put himself down. “You know we get fan mail every now and then. Early on, one of them came on a postcard that just said, ‘Mister, ain’t you got but one necktie?’”

Friday said that he had learned several lessons from his television experience. Lesson number one came with his first guest, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Robert House.

“We knew he would be good because he could talk your head off. I prepared about 30 questions. I was on number 29 and we were only nine minutes into the program.”

House was giving short “yes or no” answers to every question.

“I got into a cold sweat. Then I remembered that Chancellor House had written a book. One of the topics was about American cheese. So I asked him what was it like? And for the next 20 minutes he went on without interruption.

“So lesson number one is never ask a question that can be answered yes or no.”

Friday’s lesson number two is that “every North Carolinian has a story to tell. So the lesson is to be quiet and listen.”

Lesson number three, Friday said, is that conversations with his guests have “real historic significance.” Their spontaneous comments and expressions will give special insights for those who study the history of our times. But it is not only for history. Friday said he wanted today’s viewers to be enlightened, as when he interviewed the doctors who treated his heart condition.

Then, for those who might not have yet guessed his concern about his cherished institutions, he said, “Yesterday’s budget proposals as they relate to the university and UNC-TV would, if fully implemented, be a tragedy.”

In closing, he thanked the crowd for letting him visit in their homes every week and, with a wink, said, “By the way, I’ve got a new necktie.”

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D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch/

 
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“They are trying to eat Big Bird”

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