Jenkins: Remembering what made Andy Griffith important to NC

jjenkins@newsobserver.comJuly 19, 2012 

  • Jim Jenkins

    Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins is a Raleigh native, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (history and English), and a veteran of four decades in the newspaper business, the last two and a half of them at The News & Observer.

    He has previously worked as an editor at The Fayetteville Observer and as a columnist at the Greensboro News & Record.

    He can be reached at jjenkins@newsobserver.com. or 829-4513.

In October of 1960, North Carolina was six feet tall, with a head-full of curly hair, a baritone drawl, a broad smile, kind eyes and a red-headed little son who was about five years old. Yes, the rest of the world knew North Carolina by the name of Andy Taylor, sheriff of Mayberry.

In some ways, and in many places, that’s still the personification of our state to many others, more than 50 years after native son Andy Griffith helped to create a television show still seen daily somewhere in America. Many somewheres.

The voice, the smile, remained distinctive long after the sheriff (who was in his mid-30s at the time of the show) had left the airwaves and age had turned the hair white and brought the height down some.

Andy Griffith died July 3. He was 86 years old and had lived a life with triumphs and tribulations, like most people. All his life, he remained stung by a reference someone had made about him in his hometown of Mount Airy. “White trash” was the despicable term. He told the story rarely. But it must have hurt, for he was anything but, then or later. He did come from humble circumstances, which he did not forget, and which likely motivated him to do for others, which he did, whether it was individual acts of kindness or things like buying the instruments for a high school band in Dare County.

He was a man of conviction, even when some people didn’t like his Democratic politics or his sticking up for health care reform. He was a private man who accepted the responsibilities of being an object of adoration for millions of people who could recite entire passages from his television show. That kind of thing can wear on a person, and for a while it probably did wear on Griffith, who was a good enough actor to have made it as a motion picture star (which he was) but was destined to be first identified as Sheriff Andy Taylor.

In time, his friends would say, Griffith came to appreciate that being that character, in that show, was not a bad legacy after all.

Many who met Andy Griffith once would forever claim to be his close friends. I met him a few times, but to say that would be a woeful exaggeration. The best meeting was most happily a few years ago when William Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina system, invited me to a taping, with Griffith, of Friday’s show “North Carolina People.” When it was over, I had a lengthy visit with Griffith that I will never forget.

We had some contact after that, but I didn’t want to intrude or ask for autographs and the like because people he didn’t know were always doing that kind of thing. He was so popular that he had to guard his privacy carefully.

At his death, he had been married to Cindi for nearly 30 years, and she was his friend, protector and the source of his energy. She was gracious and devoted and they were happy.

During that long visit, Andy talked mostly about his love of music, and how he always thought it was so important for youngsters. “A kid who’s good at music,” he said, “gets a confidence he couldn’t get otherwise.”

I only mentioned the television show once, telling him I liked the fact that he didn’t play the sheriff as a bumpkin. He didn’t get into the subject very much, but acknowledged that was something he thought about. Even Don Knotts, whose Barney Fife brought him five Emmys, was more nervous bumbler than a countryfied sidekick.

Indeed, there is what enlivens and solidifies the legacy. North Carolina in 1960 might have been a hick sheriff who cracked jokes and spoke with a fake accent and played the fool. But North Carolina as represented by Andy Griffith was better than that. That was thanks to him, to his intelligence and his determination to play an honest character and not just a show-biz one. At a time when the South was in turmoil over race and poverty and lots of things that weren’t comedy material at all, Andy Griffith knew it and remained sensitive to it.

I knew as Griffith’s health was causing him problems that one day Bill Friday likely would have occasion to say of Andy what he’s had to say in recent years so many times about so many of his old friends who happened also to be friends of the Old North State. Still, it hurts. But it must be said: “A giant has fallen.”

Amen, Bill. Amen.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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