MOUNT AIRY, N.C. No, this city is not exactly Mayberry, but the similarities are unmistakable, not the least of which being the small-town moral values of classic Americana.
As Mark Twain based the setting for Tom Sawyer on his own boyhood home of Hannibal, Mo., television actor Andy Griffith drew upon his remembrances growing up in this North Carolina town near the Virginia border as the inspiration for his TV situation comedy.
One of the most successful network programs in television history, "The Andy Griffith Show" ran from 1961 to 1968, endearing millions of Americans to the characters: Sheriff Andy Taylor, the town father figure; the bumbling and high-strung deputy, Barney Fife; Andy's young son, Opie; housekeeper Aunt Bee and others such as Floyd the eccentric barber and the strait-laced county clerk Howard Sprague.
As popular as ever in reruns, the show has come to be a cultural icon symbolizing the hometown virtues of neighborliness, decency and morality. Bible study groups and community colleges use the show as the basis of courses in traditional values.
Driving east on Highway 52 into Mount Airy, the first-time visitor immediately notices some of the Mayberry trappings. Knob-shaped Pilot Mountain juts above the horizon ahead, strikingly uncharacteristic of the rolling landscape beneath it. Its namesake town, immortalized in the TV series, is off the highway going into Mount Airy. (In the show, the town that neighbors Mayberry is called "Mount Pilot.")
On any given day in Mount Airy's historic downtown area one is apt to see a replica of the 1961 Ford Galaxy that was Sheriff Taylor's patrol car; it is prominently displayed during the annual Mayberry Days in late September. And two Mayberry tourist meccas are right next to each other on Main Street: Floyd's Barber Shop (with more than two chairs, unlike its TV counterpart) and Snappy Lunch, boasting the famous "Pork Chop Sandwich."
The Mayberry virtues, too, are here in Mount Airy, but to notice them, you have to interact with the people, especially the Latter-day Saints in the area. Members of the Mount Airy Ward, like Church members around the world, provide something of a leavening influence that helps perpetuate and preserve the Mayberry virtues.
Gary York, commission chairman in Surry County which includes Mount Airy, will attest to that.
"My [LDS] friends here play a key role in the spiritual growth and foundation of our county," he asserted in a conversation over breakfast at the Wagon Wheel Cafe, a local haunt owned by Church member Clyde Hiatt. "I have a lot of admiration for them. They have a tremendous work ethic and the values that I aspire to. A lot of the quality of life here I attribute to the Mormon Church."
Commissioner York, who owns Andy Griffith's boyhood home, which is now a bed-and-breakfast, is a close friend of Mount Airy Ward Bishop Robert H. Bradley. Laughing heartily, the bishop shared a story regarding his friend. Both had been invited to speak to a religion class at Surry Community College, Mr. York representing Quakers and Bishop Bradley representing Latter-day Saints. The bishop heard his friend relate that he had been on the finance committee of his previous church but decided to leave when the committee voted to cut the custodian's salary to increase the minister's.
The bishop said, "I told him later, 'Gary, I wish I had known it when that happened; I've been trying to make a Mormon out of you for all these years, and the custodian is the only one that gets a salary at our church!' "
Bishop Bradley, a sales representative for a commercial furnace filter company, himself was converted to the Church in his young adulthood. The son of a Baptist minister, he moved with his family to Mount Airy in 1960 at the age of 10. He attended Duke University in Durham, N.C., on a football scholarship, where he dated the sister of his future wife, Rhonda Hiatt.
But it was mainly Rhonda's influence that caused him to investigate the Church. Working in California, he would occasionally visit her in Provo, Utah, where she was enrolled at BYU. One evening, she took him to Temple Square in Salt Lake City. There, she made it known that if she ever got married, it would have to be to someone who was a member of the Church.
"I said that's the craziest thing I ever heard," he recalled.
But back home in San Francisco, Bob looked up the name of the Church in the telephone directory and found the number of a local bishop. As fate would have it, the man had served his mission in Mount Airy in 1957 and knew David Hiatt, grandfather of Bob's friend, Rhonda. Struck with the coincidence, Bob exclaimed jokingly, "Well, let's go fill your font up right now and baptize me!"
He was baptized 21/2 weeks later and, by his own account, "dove head first" into the Church. He and Rhonda were sealed a year later in the Washington D.C. Temple.
Returning to live and work in Mount Airy, Brother Bradley was paired as a home teaching companion with Larry Johnson, a former high school classmate. Both have served before as bishop of the ward, and Brother Johnson is currently first counselor to Bishop Bradley.
Both Bishop Bradley and Bishop Johnson married into the Hiatt family. Hiatt is a name one encounters often in Mount Airy, both in and out of LDS circles. Russell Hiatt, proprietor of the legendary Floyd's Barbershop and, by his own account, the last living barber to have cut Andy Griffith's hair during Griffith's boyhood, is from a branch of the family that affiliated itself with the Church of the Brethren long ago.
But it is in an LDS Church context in Mount Airy that the Hiatt name is especially luminous.
Today, many Hiatt descendants still live in the Sheltontown section of the city, where the first two LDS meetinghouses stood and where a cemetery formerly owned by the Church, but recently transferred to a family foundation, is still prominent.
A favorite family story was shared by V. Talmage Hiatt, branch president from 1953-57. It is about a "temple bus" fashioned by his great-grandfather from a 1931 farm truck and materials salvaged from a junkyard so his branch-president father, David L. Hiatt, could take the clan to Salt Lake City to be sealed in the temple.
Talmage's wife, Norma, attributes the cohesiveness of the Mt. Airy Church members to the fact that "we all started as a family, and it's carried over; we all care about each other." Indeed, Talmage added, "we operate on the same principle as the House of Israel; anyone that comes into the ward, they're adopted into the family."
One who has felt that welcome is Willie Richardson. As a youth in Pilot Mountain during the 1970s, he became interested in the Church through his intense (his wife, Susan, calls it "fanatical") interest in the Osmonds. He joined the Church and about 15 of his friends, including Susan, followed him.
"This is a good area of the Church: rich in history, and you can't serve with any better people than those in the ward," he said.
That the legacy is being extended to the rising generation is reflected in an article published in the Journal, a metropolitan daily newspaper in Winston-Salem, on Jan. 4. It was written by Bryan Gentry, teen page reporter, who is a senior at Mount Airy High School and a priest in the Mount Airy Ward.
In the article, Bryan discusses the moral values to which LDS youth adhere, and quotes at length from the Church's "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet. He quotes comments and cites experiences from several LDS youth in the area, and explains that LDS people are Christian and believe in the Bible.
It is such moral values that, in the minds of many people, epitomize Mayberry. Writing in The Andy Griffith Show, his book about the 1960s television series, author Richard Kelly opines: "Perhaps the most fundamental appeal of the mythical town of Mayberry comes from its morality, which is the life force of the community and the force that guarantees the town its everlasting innocence. . . . Basic to the morality of Mayberry is the idea of a strong family unit."
No, Mount Airy will never be Mayberry, nor will any town, for that matter. Basic moral values are under constant assault in society, perhaps more so today than when the Andy Griffith series first aired.
Longtime Surry County residents say Pilot Mountain got its name because, prominent as it is, it served as a guide or "pilot" to early settlers and travelers. Perhaps in Mount Airy, the standards of the Latter-day Saints and other good people play a comparable role.