William Clyde “Bill” Friday was born on July 13, 1920 in Raphine, Virginia, and raised in Dallas, North Carolina. He graduated from Dallas High School and then earned a bachelor's degree from North Carolina State University (NCSU) and a law degree from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. Friday served in the United States Naval Reserve during World War II.
His entire professional life was spent in higher education. Friday was assistant dean of students at the UNC Chapel Hill from 1948 to 1951, then served as assistant to the President of the Consolidated University of North Carolina Gordon Gray from 1951 to 1955, when the university system included only three schools: UNC Chapel Hill, NCSU, and Woman's College of The University of North Carolina (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro). Friday was Secretary of the University of North Carolina system in 1955 and 1956, then made acting president for year until he was chosen to take the position permanently in 1957. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 1986, at which time the consolidated University of North Carolina had grown to sixteen schools.