For a half century, Wildacres Retreat was the beloved Blue Ridge mountain sanctuary where people gathered to improve themselves and the human race. Justice, fairness and diversity were programmatic hallmarks for hundreds of conferences.
Herman Blumenthal wanted to commemorate those achievements in a special 50th year anniversary. In late 1993, he gathered son Philip Blumenthal; attorney Mark Bernstein; Charlotte Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill; attorney Jim Preston; and Queens University President Billy Wireman. The group sought retired UNC President Bill Friday's advice. He suggested involving W. Robert Connor, director of the National Humanities Center in the Research Triangle Park.
They discarded ideas of international speakers, a celebratory conference and numerous other ideas. Bob Connor offered a concept and a construct: "At a time in which knowledge and information are rapidly expanding, traditional structures of belief and conduct are eroding, when the feeling of entitlement is accelerating, and racial, regional, and class animosities are intensifying, how can this society stay together?"
"Is it possible at Wildacres we might be able not just to talk about such an issue but actually take a step toward doing something?"
Bob Connor galvanized the group. Wildacres' celebration wouldn't be a party, but a gift. That gift would be a unique North Carolina program for younger emerging leaders, infused with human values that would be coupled to solving state problems. Members would be known as Friday Fellows, honoring Dr. Friday, one of the state's greatest humanitarians. Connor was the strategic contributor and Jim Preston tirelessly built the new organization. Clay Thorp was hired as first executive director and was key to getting the enterprise energized and funded. The Bumenthals' Radiator Specialty Co. was, and continues to be, the most generous financial benefactor.
Originally written by Rolfe Neil, WLI founder and former editor of the Charlotte Observer