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‘Do the right thing’ — Andy Griffith left lessons for the greater good

Andy Griffith DKnotts Ronnie Howard 'The Andy Griffith Show.'

Andy Griffith, Don Knotts and Ronnie Howard in "The Andy Griffith Show."

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Updated: July 5, 2012 11:14AM

For years, Andy Griffith spoke to me. Literally.

“Ahh . . . this is Andy Griffith. I’m looking for ah . . . Andrew Herrmann. Call me back?”

So went the voicemail Griffith left me back in the mid-1990s, when I was the religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. I kept it for years, squirreled away in my saved-messages bank until the company switched phone systems and, alas, it was lost.

I liked to play it for people in the newsroom. Nothing to it really, but folks got a kick out of hearing the voice of an American icon.

Covering faith matters, I had reached out to Griffith because he had put out a new CD — that’s how music used to come back then. It was a collection of traditional gospel songs he titled “I Love to Tell the Story.” Griffith would kill time on the set of Matlock playing his guitar and singing; an impressed country star, Randy Travis, guest starring on one episode, put Griffith in touch with his music producer. The collection sold more than 1 million copies. “Mr. Jesus has let me become a singer again,” Griffith said at the time.

On the God beat, I was always talking to interesting people about how religion shaped their lives — and not necessarily people you would normally connect with faith: Former Gov. Jim Edgar describing how, when he was a child, a Charleston church fed his family when they were broke and hungry.

The founder of the Wendy’s hamburger chain, Dave Thomas, explaining the “roll-up-your-sleeves” Christianity he learned from his Grandma Minnie.

Cubs pitcher Jose Bautista showing me the Star of David he wore around his neck and how his Judaism helped lift him during his up-and-down career.

Griffith’s story was rooted in the Moravian Church, a Christian sect started in Eastern Europe that sent missionaries to the U.S. in the 1700s — one group founded Winston-Salem, N.C. As a teenager, Griffith was attracted to Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, N.C. because the minister gave music lessons. Grace had a brass band and Griffith wanted to play the trombone.

Griffith studied to become a Moravian clergyman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and, after a semester or two, he asked his bishop if he could prepare for the ministry by majoring in music. The bishop said no.

Griffith dropped the idea of becoming a pastor, but he eventually took his brand of preaching to a different venue: “The Andy Griffith Show,” a weekly, half-hour morality play about life in a small town.

There were winks and nods to his faith: The local All Souls Church was led by the Rev. Hobart M. Tucker — he of the unforgettable sermon: “Dice Are Loaded Against the Evil Doer.” Another episode featured American and Russian diplomats meeting in the basement of Mayberry’s Moravian Church.

On Tuesday, hours after the news of Griffith’s death, Tony Haywarth, Grace Moravian Church’s current pastor, put out a statement thanking God “for the place Andy has in our hearts, for his wonderful Christian ministry, and for the joy he continues to bring into this world.”

Kathie D. Schoenborn, Grace’s church secretary, told me she thought his brand of faith came through in his Mayberry character.

On the show “he was always trying to persuade people to do the right thing” — not just what was best for his character but for the greater good, she said.

Indeed — a message worth saving.

Andrew Herrmann is editor in chief of Sun-Times Media’s West Suburban Publishing Group.

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