Notes from Mayberry, North Carolina

Today I write to remember Andy Griffith.

I could write about all the stuff you can find on Wikipedia, which is interesting enough—that he taught Carl Kassel, that he studied to be a Moravian minister, that he was a serious actor on stage and screen before becoming the legend he has become. And his roots are all over North Carolina, from his birthplace in Mount Airy and UNC-Chapel Hill where he acted with the Play Makers, to Goldsboro where he taught and his lifelong home on the Outer Banks.

I met him in the same way every kid does, on screen. In black and white at my grandparents’ farmhouse mornings while they were out sweating in the garden. I’d curl up in front of the TV and spend mornings that way, watching Sheriff Andy Taylor get exasperated with Barney Fife over and over, and in the end, providing that nugget of wisdom that we always knew was coming.

But it’s different if you’re from North Carolina—because he lived here and that show on TV, well that was here, too. And I was watching a show about what it was like to live here in North Carolina when my dad was growing up—at least that’s how I imagined it in 1982. It was my very own mythologized history.

Andy Griffith as Sir Walter Raleigh in The Lost Colony.
Photo from Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, copyright (c) 2003 by Hugh Morton.

I always knew that Andy Griffith was a local star. My parents took me to see The Lost Colony, with its sumptuous costumes and battalions of mosquitoes, and told me that Andy Griffith used to star in it. (THAT was confusing at first, since Andy Griffith and Sheriff Andy Taylor were the same person to me then.) And we knew about his home on Manteo. Once we even drove my Baltimore cousin Steve by it, because he was such an Andy Griffith Show nut and can still do all the voices. He just wanted to be near such celebrity. “He lives there!”

My mom and dad met on the Outer Banks, where she was a waitress and he was a local boy. It was 1968 and she spilled a plate of shrimp in his lap and their love story began. And Andy Griffith even figures in to this story. My mom remembers how, in the late 60s an Andy sighting was always a big deal because he was so private. It would get people talking. She says it was exciting to note how in the early shows he might throw in the name of an Outer Banks restaurant like The Reef and you could say you’d been there. He was putting us on the map.

In more recent years, a trip home to Mom and Dad’s would always include Andy Griffith on TV in black and white, if it was playing anywhere on cable at that moment. My parents—and especially my dad—would parrot all the lines and announce the plot of the episode at its outset. And so, always, hearing Andy’s voice brings me back home, wherever I am, and brings me closer to so many people I love who aren’t here anymore.

Griffith at the Andy Griffith Parkway opening festivities, Oct. 16, 2002.
Photo from Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, copyright (c) 2003 by Hugh Morton

And today, I know, similar stories are being repeated across our fair state. This morning, in this office, I learn that Andy Griffith babysat David Perry, our editor-in-chief, once upon a time. And that Heidi Perov, our design and production manager, received the Andy Griffith scholarship as a drama student at UNC. And there are more stories, and more. All you have to do is ask.

What Andy Griffith and The Andy Griffith Show did for our family—and many others like ours—what brought us all together was how he showed that North Carolina could be a place to be proud of, and not a place always belittled on TV. Rural life here—the way we lived, or at least imagined we did—could be viewed in a positive light. Andy Griffith knew this life as a thing to be proud of, and proved that to the world.

Thanks, Andy.