The lady stood reverently between the figures of Sheriff Andy Taylor and his son, Opie, holding her wide brimmed straw hat in her hand with head bowed. After a short moment, she raised her head, smiled and the family members watching snapped a picture before shuffling off.
This appeared to be the prevailing mood Friday in Mount Airy as visitor center volunteers reported an increase in tourists responding to the death of Mount Airy’s best-known native son, Andy Griffith.
“We have seen a big increase this week,” said Jessica Roberts, tourism director with the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. “I have noticed a significant increase of visitors both old and new mentioning his passing.” Roberts said that one email she received came from Missouri wanting information so they could visit because of recent events.
She said that the office has received approximately 30 emails a day that are condolences since Griffith’s death.
“A lot are posting they will visit this week or this month,” added Roberts. “It’s been an amazing outpouring of people with condolences.”
Visitor Information Specialist Esther Johnson said her job is to be one of the first people visitors see if they have questions about Mount Airy and Andy Griffith. Johnson appreciates the connection between tourists and Griffith’s legacy.
“Everybody just loves The Andy Griffith Show,” said Johnson. “There have been a lot more recently who want to know where he lived. It could be partly due to lower gas prices but people are on the move. They want to know all about the show and if he (Griffith) has any family in town.”
Johnson said volunteers love to tell tourists that there is a Snappy Lunch, a Floyd’s Barber Shop, Pilot Mountain and the Andy Griffith Museum.
“When you tell them about the squad car tours the biggest smile comes across their faces,” said Johnson.
Barber Russell Hiatt, who was featured prominently in several CNN broadcasts concerning Griffith’s death, was philosophical about his sudden notoriety.
“I was interviewed at least 17 times by radio, television and magazines,” said Hiatt. “Most of them eventually got around to asking me the same questions.” Hiatt is positive Griffith’s legacy will continue.
“There’s more people talking about him now, in some ways, than ever before,” added Hiatt.
Visitor Information Specialist Steve Martin noted that the center often sees visitors from around the world. Recently visitors came to town from Australia, Nova Scotia and Scotland.
“I think people are not here just because Andy passed away,” said Martin. “I think they are here to make a connection with Andy. … not every parent wants their child to grow up to be president, but every parent wants their child to grow up to be Andy Taylor.”
Martin noted that one caller from Hawkeye, Iowa called the center. Martin said he just felt the man needed to talk about the loss of Griffith so he stayed on the line and listened.
“That was one of the most heartfelt things I’ve experienced,” said Martin . “People feel like they’ve lost a family member.” Martin, who has worked at the center since 1984, said he has met only two persons who did not know about The Andy Griffith Show. One was from Germany and the other was from England.
Martin also said that a family was visiting the center with their son, who has Downe’s Syndrome. He noticed the child was wearing a “Goober” hat with Mayberry buttons on it so he made a point of going over to greet the family. The child performed a skit from the show.
“He was as thrilled as he could be to be here,” recounted Martin. “His parents said he watched the show all the time.” Martin said the he believes the show’s appeal cuts across every accent and ethnicity.
“They’re looking for Mayberry and they’re going to find it,” concluded Martin.
Reach David Broyles at email@example.com or 719-1952.