Remembering Andy Griffith

Eric Herman Headshot

For some strange reason, this morning when I read the news that the beloved actor Andy Griffith passed away at the age of 86, my eyes welled with tears as an odd sense of personal loss filled my heart. I don’t typically think much about celebrities and generally find the way we worship actors, musicians, athletes and other potentates of pop culture meaningless at best and at times distasteful. 

Yet, there’s something very different about Griffith’s passing. When I was a kid, I was a devoted viewer of the Andy Griffith Show. The sweet whistled melody of the theme song and the sight of Sheriff Taylor walking home from fishing with his son Opie by his side always filled me with a sense of comfort knowing that somewhere, everything was right with the world, even if it was in the imagined landscape of television. 

Looking back, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the character Andy was a perfect archetype of the American male. He was strong, steady, good humored, handsome, honorable, compassionate and uncommonly wise. He was always more likely to play a tune on the guitar than use his gun, which he almost never carried with him. He enforced the law with kindness and laughter. He never shrank from the truth, nor was he ever self-righteous. He was a just and decent father figure doing the important job of protecting his community. I loved the way he humored and tolerated Deputy Barney’s nervous paranoia and always let Otis sleep off a bender in the jail cell. Whatever the situation, you could count on Andy to be there, always a pillar of strength and compassion. 

On the show, Andy was a widower, living with his aunt, raising his son as a single parent. Yet, we never lamented his situation and he never complained. His life wasn’t perfect, but he was always cheerful and sunny. Watching the show was like stopping in for a visit in a world that had begun long before we arrived and would continue long after we left. It was as if the audience was a stranger welcomed to Sunday dinner without question or pretense. 

Growing up in the Viet Nam era in a military family, my own world as a child was nothing like the sleepy arms of Mayberry. Mine was an itinerant existence; attending six different elementary schools as my family was shuttled from place to place. In many ways, the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C. was the hometown I never had. And Andy was like a surrogate father while my own dad was half way around the world risking his life in service of our country, fighting a war no one really wanted or even fully understood. 

During those years, my mom did an amazing job maintaining a sense of normalcy at home. She often leaned on her parents, who were rock solid in their loving support. And perhaps it’s no small coincidence that my grandfather, Fred Ford, (still hale and happy at age 91) was in many ways a real-life version of Sheriff Andy, a true southern gentleman who led and sustained his family with grace, strength and a masculine, yet ever-gentle touch. 

No matter the unsettling and roiling nature of the 60s, in our family, there was a constancy of love and warmth, like a crackling hearth fire of steadiness and comfort. These days, when I’m in the area, I still drive by the home where my grandparents lived and can still hear the laughter, smell my grandmother’s southern cooking and recall the scent of the gardenias growing by the back door. 

I think all of that is why the passing of Andy Griffith has touched me so deeply. There were elements of my life that shared space with the imaginary world portrayed in that half-hour sitcom. Through the magic of his beautifully crafted television show, Griffith’s presence and the quirky people of Mayberry, gave us something to hold on to, a place where you could whistle on the way home, whether you caught a fish or not. It was a place where the words “golly” and “Pa” weren’t so silly. A place untouched by the brutal mechanisms of the real world, a place that existed in the heart. 

RIP Andy Griffith, Mayberry has never before seemed so far away. 

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