William Emmett Forrest had always been a collector. As a child, he collected the little things that appeal to young boys: rocks, leaves, matchbook covers.
But as an adult, Forrest developed a passion for collecting memorabilia and artifacts about his dear friend, Andy Griffith. Most Americans know Griffith as the actor who played the kind and thoughtful Sheriff Andy Taylor on the 1960s sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.” Others remember him as the cantankerous defense attorney Ben Matlock from the long-running mystery series “Matlock.” To Forrest, Griffith was a childhood pal who grew up to become a pop culture icon and Grammy Award-winning gospel singer, and he wanted to honor the achievements of a hometown boy who did good.
After spending years collecting memorabilia from his friend’s life and career, Forrest founded The Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, N.C., in 2009. Since its opening, the museum has welcomed nearly 200,000 visitors from all over the world. Hundreds of items from Griffith’s career in TV, movies and music, including props from “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Matlock,” are collected and displayed inside the 1,500-square-foot building. Many of the items were donated by Griffith himself, including the signs from the Mayberry Courthouse doors and a suit worn by Andy as Matlock.
“Andy wanted me to have this collection because he knew I would never sell it. He knew that it would be available for the public to see,” Forrest said in an interview with the Mount Airy News.
Griffith died on July 3, 2012.
The town of Mount Airy, where Forrest and Griffith grew up, is considered by many to be the inspiration for the fictional Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show.” The two sleepy hamlets even shared similar landmarks, such as the Snappy Lunch Counter, Floyd’s City Barber Shop and Wally’s Service Station. Mount Airy is also home to the Andy Griffith Playhouse and the Andy Griffith and Opie statue, which stands in front of The Andy Griffith Museum.
Life in Mount Airy was idyllic for Forrest and Griffith. Their summer days were often spent playing with friends in the streets and creeks around town. Forrest, who was described by those who knew him as a quiet, humble, friendly and hard-working, left the area during World War II to serve in the U.S. Navy. He returned after the war to raise a family. After his retirement from Pike Electric, Forrest was active in the Surry Arts Council, which sponsors the annual Mayberry Days festival each fall. It was this work, along with the launch of the museum, that helped reinvent the town as a tourist destination.
“Emmett was a true gentleman and an honest man. He was a person I could trust –- a rare thing for Andy and me. He was a loving husband, father, and a very special friend,” Cindi Griffith, Andy Griffith’s widow, stated.
Forrest died on Jan. 12 of cancer. He was 85.