In her flowered dress and apron, Aunt Bee delighted the Mayberry townsfolk with her fried chicken and pecan pies, floating cheerfully through a world of church picnics and county fairs.
And in real life, the actress who played her on “The Andy Griffith Show” chose the same small-town austerity in old age, fleeing Hollywood for Siler City, population roughly 4,000 at the time, where she lived alone with 14 cats.
Frances “Aunt Bee” Bavier owns a mixed legacy as Chatham County’s famous retiree. By some accounts, she answered all her fan mail and avidly promoted Easterseals and other charities. By others, she could be a bit of a crab: reclusive and fussy.
So Rebekah Radisch of Durham asked CuriousNC to confirm what she’d read in a Facebook group entitled “You Know You Grew Up in Forsyth County When ...”: that upon her death in 1989 at age 86, Bavier left money to support the police department in Siler City, her adopted hometown.
“I know Bavier willed a good deal of her estate to UNC-TV,” wrote Radisch, “but I’d heard she wasn’t particularly pleasant or entrenched in Siler City society, so such a munificent gesture seemed surprising.”
The answer, happily, is yes, she did.
When Aunt Bee died, she started a $100,000 trust fund for Siler City’s finest. The principal is kept at that amount, said Finance Director Roy Lynch, and the interest is divided between staff of roughly 20 every year around Dec. 15 — a Christmas bonus from Mayberry.
Bavier’s largesse is even more impressive considering how she lived her final years.
According to her obituary from the Associated Press, which appeared thousands of miles away in the Los Angeles Times, she almost never left her house. The Studebaker in her garage had four flat tires. The obituary also said her cats used a downstairs shower stall as a litter box, but Vickie Russell, who lives with her husband in Bavier’s former house, says that’s just not true. The Russells bought the house six months after Bavier died and Vickie Russell said there was never any sign that the shower was used as a litter box — or that the cats were anything but well cared for. The hardwood floors in the house, she adds, were not stained in the least.
Shortly after taking up residence in Chatham County in 1972, Bavier did charity work for both Christmas and Easterseals, wrote Chip Womick of the (Asheboro) Courier-Tribune in the early 1980s. But she soon dropped out of sight, declining interviews, keeping fan mail in a pair of trunks.
“She wasn’t the woman you saw on TV,” said Floyd Bowers, who worked at an Exxon station near Bavier’s grave and spoke to The N&O about her in 2004. “She liked her privacy, and she was hard to please. My wife worked at the hospital, and she was what the nurses call a hard patient.”
In 1990, Gladys Farmer, a next-door neighbor, filed suit arguing that the actress had promised she would leave her $25,000 in cash, all of her household furnishings and her car, the Associated Press reported at the time.
The will specified parts of her $700,000-plus estate would go, in addition to Siler City police, to the Actors Fund of America and several residents of Connecticut and New York, her home state. The rest of it went to UNC public television, which auctioned off her Studebaker to help pay for the endowment.
She left the money to the police because they helped keep the fans at bay, according to The Greensboro News & Record. Russell knows, at a least a little bit, how hard it probably was for Bavier to have some privacy. Even after all these years, people continue to stop at the house to see where Aunt Bee lived. They are all very nice, Russell says, but they come at all hours. Just the other day, some folks from Indiana stopped by at 16 minutes to 8 in the morning to take photos, she said, “and we’re not even Aunt Bee.”
And Bavier was a part of the community. She was known to ride in holiday parades, waving to the city. When local kids went off to college, she wrote their mothers, wishing them well. Anytime a Girl Scout had cookies to sell, she bought the first box.
However much she retreated from society, and however far her character fell from the Aunt Bee that audiences loved, Bavier chose charity as a final gesture. And two decades later, the police department in Siler City appreciates it as much as Andy Taylor loved her fresh cornbread.