The town of Mayberry was so warm and comforting that even the actors who played the characters on “The Andy Griffith Show” felt their hearts tugging them to live in such a lovely, Southern town.
Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee, was raised in Manhattan but when the Griffith Show ended, she moved to Siler City, North Carolina, in 1972, living there until her 1989 death.
The beautiful Betty Lynn, one of the few remaining cast members, chose to move to Andy’s hometown of Mount Airy years ago after visiting the picturesque town for its annual Mayberry Days.
“Andy was shocked!” she declared, laughing. “He was stunned that I took the jump and moved here. It has been wonderful. I love it and everyone treats me so well.”
Miss Betty played Barney Fife’s lovely girlfriend, Thelma Lou. She is now 93 and every third Friday of the month, she spends the afternoon greeting fans and signing autographs at the Andy Griffith Museum where the staff are family to the never married Betty Lynn.
“I was living in West L.A., in Century City,” she explained. “My home had been robbed twice, close together, when I was out of town.” Her voice is still tinged with the drawl and sweetness of Thelma Lou. “It was scary. Frightening. I said, ‘I’m not going to live here anymore’ so I went to a hotel until I figured out where to go.”
Miss Betty was born and raised in Kansas City, MO. She considered moving to Oklahoma where a cousin lived but her heart was drawn to the town that inspired Mayberry.
“When I got here, I’d go to the market and people would say, ‘Are you Thelma Lou?’ People would hug me and seem so happy to have me here. A lot of wonderful things have happened to me because of that show.”
She smiles constantly. The day before I met Miss Betty to talk with her, I had dropped into the office of the Surrey County Arts Council, located on the museum premises.
“Is there anything I should know before I speak to her? Does she hear well? Is her mind good?”
“She’s brilliant!” replied Abigail who had set up the meeting. “Her mind is fantastic and her hearing is perfect.”
Absolutely true. She does use a wheelchair but she is healthy in every other way.
“How many people normally come to see her?” I asked, expecting the answer might be a few dozen.
“Last month, the crowd was off a good bit,” responded another young woman in the office. “We probably only had seven or eight hundred.”
My eyes widened. “What?!”
“Usually, we have a thousand or more each month. She refuses to leave until she’s talked to every person.”
This, too, is true. I witnessed it. People of all ages stood in line for as long as two hours to get to her. Graciously, they stood back about five feet from the little desk where water waits, flowers are placed, and photos are signed so people can have special time with Miss Betty.
A handsome, Alabama family fluttered around her, children, ages 11 to 20, as happy to meet her as their parents. Later, a beautiful, blonde girl approached while her mother recorded it.
“This is all she wanted for her 11th birthday,” her mother told me. “To come here and meet Thelma Lou. She watches the show every day.”
After a few minutes, the girl handed Miss Betty a folded piece of notebook paper on which she had drawn Barney and Thelma Lou on each side of a big sheriff’s badge. It was heartwarming.
Every little while, during the long afternoon, Miss Betty would look over and ask, “Ronda, are you okay? Are you getting everything you need?”
“Yes ma’am,” I’d answer. “This is a wondrous sight to behold.”
“Just downright pleasin’,” as Andy would say.
(This is the final installment of a four part series on the much beloved Andy Griffith Show.)
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.