It admittedly had already been a full day for Betty Lynn as she celebrated her 90th birthday along with Mayberry fans, but one last, major highlight was still to come.
Not only did it involve a surprise appearance by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in Mount Airy Monday, but Forest presented Lynn with what’s sometimes called the highest civilian honor granted in the state, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
Forest’s visit to Mount Airy for Lynn’s birthday hadn’t been announced as part of a daylong slate of activities celebrating the actress also known as Thelma Lou on “The Andy Griffith Show,” who has resided in Griffith’s hometown nearly 10 years.
These concluded with a Monday night screening of a 1948 movie featuring Lynn and Bette Davis at the Earle Theatre downtown — which would be spiced up with the attendance by a star of state government.
Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council that organized Monday’s birthday events, told the packed theater audience that she had learned from Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson only Monday afternoon that Forest was coming here.
The lieutenant governor arrived with an entourage of staff members and others who occupied the front row at the historic theatre as Lynn arrived from a special dinner at The Loaded Goat restaurant to a loud ovation from the Earle crowd.
As Lynn sat at the front of the facility and faced an admiring audience, Forest took the podium at one point and presented the state award to the local resident.
The Order of the Long Leaf Pine recognizes recipients for exemplary service to North Carolina and their communities which is above and beyond the call of duty and has made a significant impact and strengthened the state.
It is awarded through the governor’s office, with notable past recipients including Maya Angelou, Dale Earnhardt, Billy Graham, Richard Petty, Michael Jordan, Andy Griffith and others.
Forest, who is in his late 40s, cited the significance of the popular television show from the 1960s — set in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, that was inspired by Mount Airy — which remains popular in reruns shown by multiple networks.
“Many of us have grown up watching ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” said Forest, who added that he would tune in to the program every day after arriving home from school.
The long-running series has brought positive exposure to North Carolina through its story lines highlighting a simpler place and time, and Forest said Lynn has been a key reason for its continuing success. The oldest-living member of the regular cast regularly has made herself available to fans journeying to Mount Airy seeking to soak up Mayberry atmosphere.
Lynn seemed to be taken aback by the framed award presented to her by the lieutenant governor.
North Carolina has been good to her, said the retired actress who moved here from Los Angeles after visiting Mount Airy during the annual Mayberry Days celebration. “But I never expected anything like this,” she added. “I’m overwhelmed — and I’m grateful.”
The honor capped a full day of events for the 90-year-old, including a meet-and-greet/autograph session at the Andy Griffith Museum, the unveiling of a special Betty Lynn exhibit at the Andy Griffith Playhouse, the dinner at The Loaded Goat and the Earle Theatre gathering.
“I hope I live through this day,” Lynn joked Monday night of the various activities she had engaged in, culminating with receiving the state honor.
It also was announced at the movie house that the Betty Lynn Scholarship has been formed, which will go each year to a local student to aid his or her education in the performing arts.
Before Monday night’s showing of “June Bride,” Lynn offered some of her memories about the black and white film.
While she is 90, the actress was barely in her 20s when that production was being assembled — “before all you were born,” she told the audience.
Lynn had appeared in two movies previously for 20th Century Fox, “Sitting Pretty,” starring Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara, and “Apartment for Peggy” with William Holden.
This was under the old studio system that essentially married actors to major film companies, and “June Bride” was a Warner Brothers project.
“Fox let them have me,” Lynn said of Warner.
“June Bride” starred not only Bette Davis, but Robert Montgomery, father of Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of another popular TV show in the 1960s, “Bewitched.”
“And, of course, that was a big thrill,” Lynn told the theatre gathering of her association with Davis and Montgomery.
But some confusion emerged after shooting started whenever “Bette” would be called to the set over a loudspeaker.
This led to both Lynn and Davis appearing and facing each other, and after that occurred multiple times, Davis had a solution:
“Would you mind if we called you by your character name?” Lynn recalled Davis asking her, which was “Boo.”
“And I said ‘call me anything you like.’”
Lynn said she stayed in contact with both Davis and Montgomery long after production ended, including attending parties hosted by Davis and having lunch with Montgomery.
“I liked both of them very much.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.