Right now I am watching “The Andy Griffith Show” on TV. This episode is one of my favorites. Barney joins the choir, but his singing voice is godawful. Thelma Lou, Barney’s girl, visits Andy when she learns that Barney is in the choir:
THELMA LOU: Barney’s gonna be in the choir?! My Barney?!
ANDY: That’s right.
THELMA: But Barney can’t sing.
ANDY: I know.
THELMA: He’s the man I want to marry, the man I want to be the father of my children…
ANDY: But he can’t sing.
THELMA: Not a lick!
“Not a lick.” Pure primetime gold. If you’re a shameless Andy Griffith fanatic like me, this is the scene you want re-enacted at your funeral service. And you just hope the funeral congregation is able to whistle the Andy Griffith theme song as they escort your casket into your brother-in-law’s pickup.
A few years ago, I had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou. She was in her mid-nineties.
I rented a car and drove eleven hours north to Mount Airy, North Carolina, booked the cheapest hotel I could find, and lived on peanut butter sandwiches and coffee. In hindsight, I wish I would have spent a few extra bucks on a better room because I had to share the covers with a cockroach the size of Tom Brady.
It was one of the best days of my life. Betty Lynn’s assistant told me to arrive early at the Andy Griffith Museum on Rockford Street. So I showed up at sunrise, parked downtown and I walked the old streets with the same giddiness a boy might have when he’s on his way to prom. There was a bounce in my step. This was Mayberry.
I had plenty of time to kill so I stopped at a farmer’s market by the courthouse and bought some pink flowers. They weren’t roses, but some kind of exotic flower that costs more than a three-bedroom-two-bath.
I told the florist they were for Betty Lynn, hoping for a bargain. The florist replied, “We don’t do bargains in Mayberry. In Mayberry we got bills to pay, kid.”
When I got to the museum there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Kids, adults, elderly people, middle-aged folks, Midwesterners, Europeans, church groups, and journalists. And they were all holding black-and-white photographs of Betty Lynn, waiting for her autograph.
Finally, a lady announced that everyone would have to wait a little longer this morning because Miss Betty had a one-on-one interview with a certain redheaded writer. Yours truly.
I saw about three hundred folks look at me and snarl in unison. I fully expected someone to shove a potato in the exhaust pipe of my rental car.
But I forgot about all that when Miss Betty’s wheelchair rolled into our private room, I noticed her brilliant red hair before I saw anything else.
Like I mentioned earlier, I am a longtime redhead. When Betty Lynn saw me, her first words were, “A redhead! Look! Red hair!” And I got warm and squishy all over.
I started to stammer. I did not expect to get so nervous in front of this woman, but I was trembling. This was Thelma Lou. The Thelma Lou. This was my childhood. This was my parents’ childhood. This was Americana in the flesh.
Being a professional writer who handles words for a living, I rose to the occasion, verbally, and remarked with eloquence, “Hi.”
A few of the museum employees told me that I was blushing.
Then I handed Miss Betty the flowers. She thanked me. She smelled them. And overall, I couldn’t believe how outgoing she was. I’ve never met a ninety-some-year-old lady who was so animated.
Then it happened.
Miss Betty Lynn wheeled closer to me and she kissed my cheek. I saw camera flashes go off. I saw fellow journalists scribbling on notepads. When her lips hit my cheek, time and space froze.
You see, I have been watching Betty Lynn on television syndication since I was old enough to fill a diaper. I know all her lines by heart, almost every scene, and almost every episode.
I can tell you which house in Mayberry she lived in. Which vocal parts she sang in the Mayberry choir—soprano. I can’t tell you what her skeet-shooting cousin’s name was (Karen Moore).
So when she touched my red hair and said, “Look at you.” I was no longer in my body. I had gone to be with Jesus.
To tell you the truth, the rest of the interview was a blur. Though I did ask her to say a few famous lines for me. I’m sure everyone asks her to do this, but she was gracious enough actually recite the lines for me as though it were the first time she ever did it.
She said, “Barney’s the man I want to marry, the man I want to be father of my children…”
“But he can’t sing,” I said.
Then, Betty Lynn and every other human being within earshot yelled in perfect unison, “NOT A LICK!”
Not a lick.
As long as I live, I will never forget that wonderfully perfect day in Mayberry, USA, spent with a wonderfully perfect woman.
Rest eternally, Betty Lynn. And goodbye forever, Thelma Lou.
Dean - October 18, 2021 7:50 am
Great memories. If we had shows like that now the world would be in a much better place. Very few shows that is worth watching anymore. I hate the ones with violence in them. Thanks for sharing your time with her to all of us
Vince - October 27, 2021 5:13 pm
Indeed the world would be better. Recently happened across a rerun of Little House on the Prairie. About fell over then I heard God’s name spoken with reverence and respect, not as a curse or to belittle someone. If nothing else shows us how this country has changed it it prime time television.
Holly D Nichols - October 18, 2021 8:32 am
I live in Mount Airy, which people like to fantasize as being Mayberry. We are proud Betty Lynn chose to make this place home. While she embraced it, Andy hated it and quickly left, even moved his mother away. I really enjoyed your article. Just one thing, the farmers market is held beside the post office on Main Street; the courthouse is in a nearby town of Dobson.
Margaret Jackson - October 18, 2021 9:40 am
As soon as I saw the headline of Ms. Betty’s passing this morning, I thought of you and the article you had written about your meeting with her.
I read the article, then went to my inbox, knowing you would have a send off mesage for her. You didn’t disappoint.
I’m sure her passing was bittersweet, especially so soon after Ms. Mary’s passing. I often pray for y’all, knowing that the first Thanksgiving and Christmas after a loved one’s passing is the hardest.
Keep writing from your heart. You have a true gift from God to see that special something in each person’s story.
Liza - October 18, 2021 11:08 am
My goodness, Sean! You certainly have a way with words! What a lovely way to start my day! THANK YOU!💜💜💜💜
Cheri - October 18, 2021 11:49 am
I still watch the Andy Griffith shows and as soon as I see the first scene, I know which show is airing. So many good life lessons are taught in these episodes. Sean, I had to laugh when you talked about your memorial service. My family has also been told to whistle the “Fishing Hole” theme song after my service. RIP Thelma Lou!
Debbie g - October 18, 2021 12:27 pm
Good bye Thelma Lou. Great memories. Thank you Sean love to all
Susan Forte - October 18, 2021 12:40 pm
Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - October 18, 2021 12:56 pm
Oh, what a joy she was to you and it sounds like you were to her that day! What a memory to cherish.
Charlotte Lee - October 18, 2021 1:04 pm
A beautiful tribute! She was an icon. Much loved. Heaven is filling up with loved ones. Let us live in the way that gets us there as well.
Nancy Crews - October 18, 2021 1:17 pm
Shelton A. - October 18, 2021 1:30 pm
RIP Betty Lynn and Thelma Lou will live on in syndication for a long time to come. Thank you for so many memories. Be with God and the angels and all the saints.
Dianne - October 18, 2021 1:32 pm
Wonderful again, Sean. I still watch those reruns at my 77 years. I grew up on this show. One of my son and some of his buddies know the words to all of the shows, and these guys are in their 50s now. The show is about life and takes us all back to a gentler and more innocent time. Wish we could go back to the Mayberry time in our country now. Thanks for sharing.
Karen - October 18, 2021 1:44 pm
Best show ever. Our pastor did a Bible Study on the show. We had such a special time during this study.
Christina - October 18, 2021 2:56 pm
What tender memories Sean!
Danny Dabbs - October 18, 2021 3:19 pm
Made my month! Thank you!
Stacey Wallace - October 18, 2021 3:40 pm
Love me some Andy Griffith and Miss Betty Lynn. Thanks, Sean.
Annie D Sommers - October 18, 2021 3:41 pm
What a tribute to a beautiful lady.
Russell Moulton - October 18, 2021 3:59 pm
My wife and I watch Andy every night. Let me know when they come up with something better! Just like your writing, read it everyday too. Thank you!
vandyrebel - October 18, 2021 4:18 pm
Thank you for your comments about Thel. What a treasured memory for you. I regret that she is not being laid to rest in Mount Airy. Perhaps she and Barney in Heaven can have another dinner at Morelli’s, not go dutch treat, and tip a quarter to those moody gypsy violinists.
Alice Adams - October 18, 2021 4:32 pm
We too, are life-long Andy fans and quote episodes as well. I’m so sorry to learn of Miss Lynn’s passing
Larry Grainger - October 18, 2021 6:03 pm
Sean, I discovered you in Randy Turner’s book, 60 Years of Mayberry, so I am obviously an avid TAGS fan (who is also from The Emerald Coast of Florida-Springfield). What a great article about Betty Lynn. I too got to meet her up close and personal and can relate to everything you wrote. Thank you much!
Dawnie B - October 18, 2021 9:07 pm
Aw, another good one gone from this earthly home. Almost all of the great actors of my time are gone now.
They brought so much enjoyment to our lives through difficult times. As I grow older, I look forward to seeing them again one sweet day in God’s kingdom!
Linda Moon - October 18, 2021 10:17 pm
Rest in peace, Betty Lynn. And while there in Eternity, if you meet my friend Barbara who arrived five days ago, tell her “Hello” for me. And please assure her that her Earth Angels will be looking out for Corey. Thank you. And many rewards are there, “Thelma Lou”, for bringing some Heaven on Earth to us Mayberry fans…most especially, to Sean Dietrich.
Karen Snyder - October 18, 2021 10:43 pm
Thank you for this.💕 So many sweet memories of a gentler time. RIP Miss Betty Lynn.
Goober Fife - October 19, 2021 1:21 am
Yes Sean she was ONE SPECIAL LADY!…When she talked to you, it was like you were the only person in the room…I too have many Special memories of talking to her at Mayberry events over the years…
Mayberry looks a little empty now, but don’t heaven seem nice and FULL?
Carole Moormann - October 19, 2021 6:49 am
Thank you so much for this. I totally love it. I have watched the Andy Griffith show for as long as I can remember. It was such a good down to earth show.
christine Wackrow - October 20, 2021 1:43 am
great article, Sean. so enjjoyed it.
Bob - October 20, 2021 1:58 pm
METV every night! I know every episode by heart! Thelma Lou was simply gorgeous with eyes and a smile you could never forget! It’s been decades since I was in Mt. Airy. I think I will plan a trip. You were blessed to get that kiss. But, you already know that.