The late Betty Lynn was known to millions of The Andy Griffith Show fans as Deputy Barney Fife’s long-suffering, kind-hearted friend.
In the decades since the show has aired, many of these fans have had the opportunity to meet her — Lynn has been a frequent guest at Mayberry-themed festivals and fairs across the country, and a regular attendee of Mount Airy’s Mayberry Days. After moving to Mount Airy in 2007, she became a fixture in Andy Griffith’s hometown. Not only did she attend Mayberry Days every year, but she later made regular appearances at the Andy Griffith Museum to meet and sign autographs with fans.
Lynn, who passed away on Oct. 16, was a favorite among fans of the show because she cared for them and showed it — often spending time chatting with them, getting to know them, and even catching up on them in chance meetings years later to remember them.
Her fans will soon have the opportunity to get to know her better, to learn about her childhood, her early career, her Mayberry years, and what she was up to in the years after The Andy Griffith Show, with the release of her autobiography. Becoming Thelma Lou: My Journey to Hollywood, Mayberry and Beyond.”
The 300+ page hardcover book will be officially released on August 29 – that would have been her 96th birthday. Surry Arts Council will mark the day with a book launch event at the Andy Griffith Museum.
“We will have drawings for Betty Lynn memorabilia ranging from a handbag, a hat, jewelry, a pair of sunglasses and other treasures from 1pm to 3pm,” said Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council. Jones. Jones, a close friend of Lynn’s who wrote the forward in the book, said copies of the book will be available in stores starting that day. “The first 50 books sold will include a bookmark signed by Betty,” she said. The museum sells the books for $40 each.
While Betty died last fall, two men who helped her put together and write the book — Jim Clark of Nashville, Tennessee, and Tim McAbee of Sevierville, Tennessee — recently said they think their fans will enjoy the work.
“I think people in Mount Airy are going to like it especially,” Clark said. As a writer and co-founder of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watcher’s Club, Clark is a lifelong fan of the show and has come to know Lynn well over the years. “The book has a lot to say about Mount Airy towards the end when she moved to Mount Airy. She loved living there, she has so many nice things to say about the people of Mount Airy.”
McAbee, a concert and events promoter who has been involved in organizing many reunions for the cast of “The Andy Griffith Show” over the years, said he believes fans will come away from the book with a greater appreciation for the tremendous career of Lynn will be coming out, apart from The Andy Griffith Show.
“I think being in the USO and some of the conditions that she traveled in and performed in as a young lady right out of high school,” are among the revelations in the book, which he said were stands out in his memory. “She was in the China-Burma-Indian Theater (during WWII). Although she wasn’t on the front lines, the journey was horrible as she was the only woman in difficult conditions. I never really thought about it until I heard her describe it.”
That period of her life, just after she turned 18, was a sometimes harrowing experience. She and some of her USO colleagues traveled to remote areas to entertain and visit soldiers in hospitals. That often meant sleeping on the ground on torn, dirty mattresses, traversing rugged landscapes, and dodging Japanese soldier camps to get to the remote soldiers’ hospitals.
Another part of her story that stands out for McAbee is the expansive career she had before landing the role of Thelma Lou.
“It’s amazing what a career she had during the Hollywood Golden Age, the people she worked with, the films she acted in, long before ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’ I think that will surprise a lot of readers, all the things that she has done.”
McAbee said he first met Lynn while attending the January 19, 2000 ceremony unveiling the Hollywood Walk of Fame star dedicated to Don Knotts.
“That’s when I really started to get to know her,” he said. He invited her to several of the Mayberry cast reunions he produced at Pigeon Forge, and over time he became impressed with the stories of her career and her experience in the entertainment industry.
“It was the downtime during those shows that we could hang out and I really got to know her. That, for me, was the impetus for the book. I encouraged her to share some of those stories, some of her memories.”
After agreeing to the idea, McAbee said he began recording many of these conversations, and the two approached Clark for help, given his background as an author and publisher.
“Betty and I both admire him so much, his knowledge of the show … he was the first person we brought on board to help us with the book.”
From there, it was about sporadic meetings with Lynn to capture her memories for the nearly two-decade project.
Clark, whose friendship with Lynn dates back to when he met her when she was involved in the 1986 film Return To Mayberry, acknowledged it was a long time before a single book was in production.
“It was a Mayberry pace,” he said, laughing. “We took our time for that. She was busy doing other things, we were busy, we just settled in when we could. There have been many ups and downs in our process.”
There were periods, he said, when she was less interested and put the interviews on hold for a while. McAbee said Don Knotts’ death in 2006 affected her deeply and put work on the project on hold for a few years. Despite this, they always returned to conducting interviews and transcribing the recordings.
Then, in 2020, he said Lynn told them the time for compiling information was over, so writing started in earnest.
“It was pretty much finished before it even started,” Clark said of the writing process. “Betty has such a great memory for the details of her life…she’s such a great storyteller…we haven’t changed much other than organizing and doing the things you need to do as you move from the spoken word to the written word. It’s really her telling her story.”
“The process went right up to her passing,” McAbee said.
While Clark was writing and organizing, any loose ends or questions that cropped up led Mount Airy resident and photographer Hobart Jones to slip over to her, recorder in hand, to ask her a few questions about what Clark allowed finished the manuscript before she died.
“Fortunately, we wrote everything and she had the opportunity to look at the manuscript and approve it before she died in October,” Clark said.
Though she hasn’t seen the final product, Clark said the cover photo is one that Lynn has often said is among her favorites. In all, the book, which spans her life, contains 140 pictures – some from her childhood, others from her USO services and career before Andy Griffith, and many others taken by Hobart Jones and others over the years.
“We consider the book to be a final gift from her to her fans,” Clark said. “I hope people enjoy it, maybe learn some things they didn’t know, see some things they didn’t see.”
Becoming Thelma Lou: My Journey to Hollywood, Mayberry, and Beyond will continue to be available at the Andy Griffith Museum after the August 29 launch party. It will also be available in hardcover and softcover editions at Weaver’s Department Store (https://www.weaversdepartmentstore.com/index.php) and other retailers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books A Million and others.