Betty Lynn, forever remembered as Mayberry’s ‘Thelma Lou,’ has died

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Betty Lynn, the actress forever known as Thelma Lou in the hearts of “Andy Griffith Show” fans, died Saturday at the age of 95.

The Surry Arts Council announced her passing on Sunday. Lynn died peacefully after a brief illness, said the council.

Born Elizabeth Ann Theresa Lynn, a third generation Missouri native, Lynn was an entertainer from an early age, performing as a teenager in USO Camp Shows during World War II. She is thought to be the only American woman to have traveled the dangerous Burma Road during the war, according to the Surry Arts Council.

Lynn received a special commendation for her contributions during the war, and was later named an honorary colonel in the American Legion. She traveled to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., with World War II veterans on the North Carolina Triad’s inaugural Honor Flight in 2009.

Lynn acted in film opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest stars — William Holden, Bette Davis and others — and in a number of popular television shows, but gained her most enduring fame as the sweetheart of Barney Fife in “The Andy Griffith Show’s” fictional Mayberry.

Why she put up with Barney, played brilliantly by Don Knotts, for so long is anyone’s guess. We all knew Thelma Lou could do better, but she did love Deputy Bernard P. Fife.

She appeared in 26 episodes of the series between 1961 and 1966, during the show’s first five seasons and in a few episodes of Season 6. When Knotts left the show after five seasons, Thelma Lou was written out of the series as well. She appeared in the TV movie “A Return to Mayberry” in 1986, to marry Barney.

She also played Sarah, Ben Matlock’s secretary during the first season “Matlock,” another popular Andy Griffith series.

Mayberry, modeled after Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., eventually became Lynn’s hometown, too.

Lynn moved to Mount Airy in 2007, having attending the annual Mayberry Days festivals there and deciding it would be a nice place to live. She was embraced by the community.

The Surry Arts Council presents an annual “You’re the Cats!” Award — named for Barney’s description of Thelma Lou — to recognize people who have made noteworthy contributions to the Mayberry Days festival.

In 2016, when Lynn turned 90 years old, NC Gov. Pat McCrory granted and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest presented Lynn with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award, considered by most to be the highest civilian honor in the state.

Upon news of her death, Elinor Donohue, a friend and fellow actor who briefly played Andy’s girlfriend on “The Andy Griffith Show,” said in a statement provided by the Surry Arts Council: “Betty was a dear and loving friend to all who knew her. Her talent will continue to bring joy to her fans via ‘The Andy Griffith Show.”

Karen Knotts, the daughter of Don Knotts, tweeted:“I’m so sad to hear that beloved Mayberry icon and friend Betty Lynn passed away last night. There was no one more devoted to fans than she. Such a loving and kind soul. We’ll remember and love you always, Betty.”

A private burial service is planned in Culver City, California, and a memorial service will be announced at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Lynn’s memory to the Betty Lynn Scholarship Endowment (for students pursuing a career in dance or acting) or the Barbara and Emmett Forrest Endowment Fund (for the Andy Griffith Museum and Mayberry Days), both in care of Surry Arts Council, P.O. Box 141, Mount Airy, NC 27030. Donations may also be made to the Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church, 1208 N Main Street, Mount Airy NC 27030

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