Emmett Forrest, for all of his life, would be known as one of the most beloved, most thoughtful, men in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. He happily shared whatever he had with others.
He served his country in World War II then returned to Mt. Airy to work for an upstart local company, founded by family, called Pike Corporation that would become one of the nation’s largest specialty construction firms in the electrical industry. When Mr. Forrest retired, he had risen to vice president.
But the work for which he will be best remembered, began when he set out to preserve the legacy of his lifelong best friend, Andy Griffith. The boys grew up in simple houses close to each other on a quiet Mt. Airy street. Daily, they walked to school together, play ball and forged a friendship that would last until Emmett — immortalized on the Andy Griffith Show as Emmett the Fix-it man — died at 85.
“When Daddy was in the hospital, Andy called every day to check on him,” said Terri, his daughter who joins others such as Tanya Jones, the dynamite leader of the Surrey Arts Council, to grow the work that Emmett began: The Andy Griffith Museum. Additionally, the Forrests and Jones were the brain trust that launched, 30 years ago, Mayberry Days, a late September festival that celebrates The Andy Griffith Show annually.
“At Daddy’s funeral, you could hear his distinctive voice singing out,” she recalled.
Emmett and Andy stayed close for all their lives. Over the years, Emmett would collect memorabilia, gathering it from Andy whenever he was willing to part with it. Once, as Terri explained with smiling, her father was visiting Andy at his home on Mateo Island, NC. Andy loved to fool with old cars so he urged Emmett to follow him out to the garage to see his latest project.
“When they got out to the garage, Daddy noticed the signs (Sheriff and Justice of the Peace) which hung on the outside jail doors. He said, ‘Andy, where those come from?’ Andy shrugged, ‘Oh, I’ve had those ever since the old show ended.’ Daddy said, ‘Oh, Andy, we need those for the museum.”
Emmett, family, friends and Tanya doggedly planned a museum which opened in 2009. They also named the main thoroughfare, ‘The Andy Griffith Parkway.’ On one of the special occasions, town officials sent a plane to bring Andy and his wife. The pilots were loading the plane and noticed that Andy was holding a box.
“We’ll load that for you.”
Andy hugged the box tightly and said, “Oh no. This box stays with me.” On the flight he held it in his lap then asked to be driven to Emmett’s house, the box still cradled in his arms.
“Andy came in and said, ‘Emmett, I brought you something.’ Daddy opened the box and there were the signs.” She smiled broadly. She’s proud of her Daddy and rightly so.
As part of the Andy Griffith Museum, doors identical to Sheriff Taylor’s office are prominently features with those original signs. Griffith’s uniform, also displayed, was made by the designer Nudie, who made the elaborate rhinestone suits for Hank Williams and Porter Wagoner.
Terri, an excellent, enthusiastic storyteller, toured me through the museum, pointing out the original sheriff’s desk and props such as pencil holder and pad. Emmett Forrest collected them all from his buddy. She stopped at a display of Matlock, Griffith’s hit series, that shows his seersucker suits among other things including a letter in which Griffith gave details on the suit then closed by telling Emmett he needed advice on something and would ask later.
“Daddy never told what it was.”
The museum, one of the most outstanding I’ve ever seen, hosts 60,000 people annually.
Thank you to Emmett and the people of Mt. Airy for the remembrance.
“’Preciate it,” as Sheriff Taylor was fond of saying.
(This is the third of a four part series on the Andy Griffith Show. Next week, we meet Betty Lynn who played Barney’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou.)
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.