Andy’s Gravity

A very sad day.

The three men who represent the best of the modern South to me are a politician and two humorists: Terry Sanford, Justin Wilson and Andy Griffith. With Andy’s passing yesterday, the final member of this trio has departed, leaving the South and the entire nation richer for their time with us but profoundly poorer and sadder for their departure.

Terry Sanford was a man who devoted his entire adult life to public service. By his contemporary writings we can see that he was struck during his service in the Second World War by the horror he’d seen visited on specifically-targeted minorities. He recognized the behavior, of course, and he returned dedicated to establishing fairness and equality in his native North Carolina.  He became a socially active lawyer, then one of the South’s young ‘Civil Rights Governors’ and even ran for the presidency in 1964 on that platform. His career moved the needle on the nation’s and the South’s attitudes toward civil rights and race relations. He served as the president of North Carolina’s Duke University, where I came to meet him, then became the US Senator representing the state.  He was warm, hospitable, humorous, humane and gracious, even in challenging moments.  Duke students, during his tenure as president, fondly called him ‘Uncle Terry’ without even the slightest hint of mocking humor. He was exactly that, a kindly but firm uncle to all of us.

Justin Wilson was a humorist and chef who introduced America to Cajun culture and food. He knew of what he spoke and cooked. His father had been Louisiana’s agricultural commissioner. He knew everyone, every nook and cranny of the state, every farming family, their crops and special seasonal foods. He peppered his stories and recipes with his unique turns of phrase, maybe those he’d heard from others; they aren’t well served on the page but must be heard. His cooking was easy, generous, neighborly, his portions ample to a fault. His humorous recordings aren’t often fall-down funny. They’re meant, like his food, to be slowly savored, shared with friends, part of a fully social experience. You don’t eat Justin Wilson’s food take-away. You sit at a picnic table with your family and friends; in any event, his portions would literally kill you if you tried to eat by yourself. You best enjoy Wilson’s dishes in the Southern manner, in a big group of drinking, talking and laughing fellows. That’s the way to fully appreciate his stories of Cajun life too.

And now, to Andy.

When I lived in his beloved North Carolina, a local TV station aired two back-to-back episodes of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ every single day. More days than not, during my years in Durham, I watched. When I had the early shift, I’d even put it on in the college bar where I worked. I came to appreciate the show’s humor, humanity and even its glacial pace, but came to appreciate Andy Griffith even more. His character was compelling, of course. After all, who wouldn’t want a town sheriff, a neighbor, a dad like Andy? Surprisingly smart. Generally happy. Pleasant. Musically talented. Gentle and kind. Charming. Dedicated to his town, family and friends. But I came to understand the character was only part of the package. Andy himself, that’s Andy Griffith not Andy Taylor, had real chops as an actor. Over time, I searched for and found some of his film work. I loved the high-energy, goofy, almost innocent barracks humor of ‘No Time For Sergeants’ but was completely unprepared for and blown away by his folksy yet sinister and purposefully manipulative turn in Elia Kazan’s ‘Face in the Crowd.’ A lesser actor couldn’t have pulled it off, couldn’t have gotten close. Yet, even after ‘Face,’ he was rarely appreciated for his acting talent. Andy Griffith wasn’t afraid to show the dark side of the South’s famous warmth and charm. Turning on the fake 100-Watt smile at will. Two-faced asides. Conscious betrayals of friends. Greed. Lust. Alcoholism.

And, in the process, he left us a cautionary tale about trusting the authenticity of populist political movements, a lesson we’d be very wise to heed today.

Goodbye, Andy. Together with Terry and Justin, you will be sorely missed.

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