Although I grew up in Virginia, I am the child of Tarheels, and we always knew who our fellow Tarheels in the world were. I knew that James Taylor spent a good chunk of his childhood in Chapel Hill. "Carolina In My Mind" was a song that I learned at a very young age. I knew that Charlie Rose, David Brinkley and Jim Lampley (Class of '71, same as Mom) were all Tarheels. My father was in New Orleans in 1982 when James Worthy and Michael Jordan et al took the Heels to the National Championship, and I was on Franklin Street enjoying the bonfire in 1993 when we did it again. There have been many iconic Tarheels since the founding of the Old North State, but today I have to talk about two that have touched me the most and have shown the best of us to the world. They are Andy Griffith and Charles Kuralt. My appreciation for these men and their work probably makes me seem older than I am, but they are a part of the North Carolina that I knew growing up, and they both shared a skill at telling stories that speaks to the heart of a story loving Tarheel like me.
I mentioned that I grew up in Virginia, but every summer for at least 2 weeks my brother and I were packed off to our grandparents house in Wake Forest, NC. Not to be confused with Wake Forest University, I mean the town of Wake Forest which is just north of Raleigh and when we were kids was little more than a stop on US Rt. 1. It's a very different town now, but back then it was a world apart from the Washington D.C. ex-urb where we lived. At Granny's we had air conditioning in only one room of our nearly 100 year old house. It was a town of shaded avenues and old homes, homemade peach ice cream and sweet tea and late night drag racing down Main Street. We even had our own fishing hole at my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Joe's house where we learned to fish with bamboo fishing poles. In short, it was a lot like Mayberry which wasn't always fun for us cosmopolitan Northern Virginia kids.
But every afternoon at 4:00 on the local UHF channel, there was The Andy Griffith Show. I rarely missed it. It helped me appreciate the simple goodness of where I was. It was a small town world free of fast food chains and smart phones and Starbucks, and in the 1980's it was a world that was fast disappearing. But the Andy Griffith show reminded us of the best of that world. Every little town in America had it's Floyd's Barber Shop, and it's fishing hole and soda fountain\drug store. It was a simple way of life that allowed the show's writers to distill things down to what's important. Even when the people of Mayberry got a little crazy and even if he got a little out of his depth, Sheriff Andy Taylor would always work his way around to the right solution with a patience and kindness that is sadly missing in much of the world today. Griffith used his incredible storytelling ability to create Mayberry and its people out of the the rural North Carolina where he grew up, but it could have easily been a small town anywhere in America.
I'm sure some folks will remind me that it was almost exclusively a white world on the Andy Griffith Show, and you're right. But we are talking about the 1960's here, and much of the South was still segregated. Although The Andy Griffith Show shied away from the racial issues of the day, it did however address many issues of the human condition and it showed a humanity in all its characters that is worthy of attention. Andy Griffith showed similar grace in the rest of his career and life. One of my favorite roles of his is the cantakerous diner owner with the heart of gold in the film Waitress. He was curmudgeonly but sweet, much like a favorite great uncle. In fact, for many of us Tarheels he always sort of felt like a favorite uncle and I know I can speak for a lot of them when I say I'm so glad that we have his vast body of work to remember him.
I've been trying all day to sum up how I feel about his passing, but honestly it's been hard. I don't think I could say it better than my old friend David Robinson.
Dear Andy Griffith, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Your passing saddens me. You are my favorite television childhood memory. Strangely enough, withstanding my own fallible nature, you are part of what has made me a man. Your character in the Andy Griffith Show should be used as an example of what a man should truly be. With authority comes responsibility and that power should not be used without wisdom and intellectualism. Gentle but firm, righteousness without indignation, understanding without escalation. You are my secret Mr. McBeevee and the silver dollar you've placed behind my ear are the values and lessons taught to me through your show. No doubt there is special place for you in the heavens; you deserve no less. Good night, Paw. We will miss you.
Another Tarheel who held up a mirror to America was Charles Kuralt, who died fifteen years ago tomorrow. It seemed so fitting to me that the man who spent much of his career highlighting the best of the American individual passed away on the Fourth of July. From "Charles Kuralt's People" at the Charlotte Observer to his "On the Road" segments at CBS to his books, Kuralt brought attention to average or even forgotten people of America doing great, amazing or sometimes just crazy things. There was Levi Fischer Amish postmaster, Billy Bird Steam Train Engineer, and Joseph Charles cheerful waver. All of them ordinary American people doing extraordinary or even simple things with passion. Without Kuralt to tell their stories, we probably never would have known about most of these people. But Kuralt had a knack for recognizing the sublime in these hidden people and bringing us their stories with a generosity of spirit that I think few journalists today can afford. He showed us that even those who seem the most ordinary among us have stories worth telling.
Whatever your feelings might be about Charles Kuralt and Andy Griffith as men, their work stands up as love letters to the American people; not people waving flags and singing jingoistic country songs on the Fourth of July, but real people going about their business making the most of the freedoms we have. These two great storytellers did what great storytellers do. They held up mirrors to our society and showed us our own beautiful humanity. Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you.