News came this morning that Andy Griffith, the beloved sheriff of TV's Mayberry passed away at his home on beautiful Roanoke Island, N.C.
He was 86.
Griffith was best known to the world as Andy Taylor or Ben Matlock on television, or as Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, the role for which Griffith earned an Oscar nomination in Elia Kazan's "Face in the Crowd."
But when I lived on Roanoke Island, a place where every year-round resident is considered a neighbor, Mr. Griffith was mine.
Do not misunderstand. We were not friends, only what I would consider a good acquaintance, despite only having met a half-dozen times or so across nearly a decade on the island.
The first time we met, I was slowly negotiating a steep flight of stairs when Griffith entered the doorway, and started up the way.
"Excuse me, Mr. Griffith," I said. He stopped.
"Take your time," he said.
I finally made it to the bottom of the stairs.
"Mr. Griffith, I don't mean to trouble you," I said. "But I'm Paul South. I've always wanted to meet you, especially since I've lived here."
"I know who you are," he said, smiling. "I read your columns and stories in the paper. And you live in that apartment right over there."
"How do you know where I live?" I asked.
"I know lots of things," he said smiling. "You never know, I might come visit my neighbor sometime."
Mr. Griffith did know lots of things. From 1960 until the series ended, Griffith showed us through "The Andy Griffith Show" that he knew a lot about small towns, about simple pleasures and strong values.
In Mayberry, folks went to church. They found happiness in long talks, short bottles of pop, fishing in the lake and sleeping on the ironing board. They forgave transgressions. They loved God and their neighbors, even the folks on the margins. Ask Ernest T. Bass. And Andy, it seemed, set the standard for it all.
Mayberry also taught us how the problems of the world could vanish on a big front porch, after a fried chicken dinner and a chorus of "The Little Brown Church in the Vale."
In one of the most interesting takes I've ever heard on life in Mayberry, a former student worker in the media relations office during my time at Samford, wrote a paper for a New Testament class, comparing the relationship between Andy and Barney to that of Jesus and St. Peter. Peter, like Barney, was always getting into trouble, and Jesus, like Andy, always bailed out his friend.
So it is with us.
Andy Griffith as "Lonesome" Rhodes taught us the dangers of a demogogue. "A Face in the Crowd" packed a powerful punch in the days of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and George Corley Wallace. It is one of the great American cinematic performances. And in this political season, Griffith's work on the film deserves a deep, thoughtful viewing.
And it should be noted that Mr. Griffith also won a Grammy for a Southern Gospel album, celebrating the great old hymns. Talk to his fellow congregants at Mount Olivet United Methodist, and they'll tell you that Mr. Griffith believed the words he sang.
But that is the private Andy Griffith, the one who loved his home on the island, who loved browsing at the local Ace Hardware and at the local bookstore. In Manteo, he was not a star, but a friend.
The newscasters today will talk about his support for President Obama's health reform plan. But perhaps more important was quiet, yet vigorous effort to keep the big box retailer Wal-Mart, off the island. I sat next to Griffith and his wife Cindi at the public hearing and vote. His presence, I believe, made a difference. The big-box developers lost a narrow vote.
He was not an actor that night. For the great people of Roanoke Island, he was a neighbor and friend.
Like the sheriff without a gun, Andy won with grace. The beach towns near Manteo gave in to the Starbucks. Harris Teeters and Wal-Marts of America and home-owned stores were sacrificed. Roanoke Island did not cave, thanks in part to Andy's trusted voice.
Principle and people won over profit, life imitating Mayberry art.
After our first encounter, Andy Griffith never visited his neighbor in the apartment. But a couple of years later, he gave me a precious memory that will linger for the rest of my days.
It was December, 2001. Manteo was chilly, gleaming like an elegant socialite in the glow of the Christmas season. There was a new baby in our house.Tucker was 3 months old.
As often happened in those wonderful days, I ran into Mr. Griffith near Manteo Booksellers, a local treasure lost to murderous Hurricane Irene.
"I hear we have a new baby," he said.
"Yes sir," I said. "A little boy."
"Do you have a picture?," Griffith asked.
I immediately produced an image of little Tucker, resplendent in scarlet velvet Christmas overalls.
In a flash, Andy Griffith's unforgettable grin washed over his face.
"Awwwwww, that is the prettiest ba-beeeee."
In that moment, I was in front of Floyd's Barber Shop.
And Andy Griffith was my friend.
Rest well my neighbor and friend. We will miss you.