Answer Man

The name ‘Opie’ is a lot more complicated than you’d think

‘Thelma Lou’ from The Andy Griffith Show turns 90

Actress Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou on "The Andy Griffith Show," will celebrate her 90th birthday with friends and fans in Mount Airy, NC.
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Actress Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou on "The Andy Griffith Show," will celebrate her 90th birthday with friends and fans in Mount Airy, NC.

Q: Something I’ve wondered about for ages: Oscar-winning director “Ronny” Howard was just 6 when he was cast as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Does anyone know what “Opie” was a nickname for?

Ethan Edwards, of Belleville

A: You’ll probably think I’ve joined Otis on one of his binges, but “Opie” is ultimately an offshoot of “Asbjorn,” a popular Viking name that predates the 10th century.

Don’t see the connection? Neither did I until I did some digging at the Internet Surname Database (www.surnamedb.com). Looking for a bold name, the Norse-Vikings combined “As,” meaning “god” (Thor lovers will surely recognize Asgard, “home of the gods”) and “bjorn” meaning “the bear” to form Asbjorn. Then, through the years, the name acquired a number of dialectical nicknames from Asbie to Obby and, finally, to Oppy or Opie.

By the 17th century, Opie had become a widespread surname on Cornwall, that small peninsula on the southwest edge of the United Kingdom. In roughly 1600, for example, a coat of arms was granted to Opie of Pawton in St. Breock while John Opie, often called “the Cornish wonder” for his art,” was a court painter to King George III in the late 18th century.

But then as so often happens, someone decided that Opie might make a good first name as well, much like Aldrich, Harrison or Madison. The thinking is that Opie made its way to the United States and, while never overly popular, it did make small inroads in the South with a long “o” sound to start it off.

That’s where Andy Griffith’s Opie comes in. Rather than having some unattractive name like Oscar Percival Taylor that was turned into O.P. or Opie, Ron Howard told Jay Leno on “Tonight” that his character was named after bandleader-actor Opal “Opie” Taft Cates, who once boasted a radio audience of 35 million. Born in 1909, in Clinton, Ark., Cates joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra, in which he played with Harry James and Glenn Miller. Eventually he would star on “Meet Me at Parky’s” and the short-lived “Opie Cates Show” (1947-48), which he would introduce much like you might imagine Griffith would: “The doggonedest thing happened to me th’ other day ... ”

The claim that Howard’s character is named after him is reasonable, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

“One of the cast members on ‘Meet Me at Parky’s’ was Sheldon Leonard, ‘The Andy Griffith Shows’s’ producer. Cates’ son recalled that Leonard contacted his father to request permission to use his first name in the show. He also said that in Cates’ later years, during which he was in failing health, (Howard) would ‘call occasionally to check on his namesake’s condition.’”

Still, that’s not the only theory. On the June 18, 1999, edition of “As It Happens,” a Canadian Broadcast Corp. show, Opie Shelton claimed the character was named after him. Shelton was a childhood friend of Griffith and eventually became president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, urging local businesses to comply with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And just to prove that Opie as a first name is not totally unheard of, may I introduce you to Opie Read, a Nashville, Tenn., native, who would spend his life not only editing five newspapers but also starting his own humor magazine, The Arkansas Traveler. You may remember that in 1992, the workers in President Bill Clinton’s advance team called themselves Arkansas travelers.

Q: Years ago, I signed forms to donate my body to science, but they say I’ve become too heavy. Now I want to be cremated by the simplest means possible, but I’m told this will run me at least $3,000. Why do medical schools reject overweight people, and are there any cheaper funerals?

P.D., of Cahokia

A: You might think that with a limited number of bodies (an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 per year) being donated to help train students at roughly 140 U.S. medical schools, acceptance standards would be relatively liberal, but a 2012 MSNBC investigation found that you would be mistaken. For at least three reasons, bodies taller than 6-foot-4 or, in some places, heavier than 180 or 190 pounds may be rejected as they are at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

Why? Before being used for teaching purposes, the bodies must be stored, but medical school refrigeration units may not be able to accommodate larger bodies. And while 180 pounds or so may not sound like much, the embalming process may add 100 to 150 pounds to the total. Then, even if a large body could be stored, it often needs to be moved, a difficult task for the average technician or student. Finally, donated bodies are generally used for first-year students. As repugnant as it may sound, too much fat presents an unwanted barrier between the students and the body structures they really want to study.

As far as finding a less expensive funeral, I’d let my fingers do the walking through the phone book. Creason Funeral Home in Millstadt, for example, said they offer dignified cremation services for $995, which includes transport, storage and paperwork. I’ve seen figures for as little as $695 on the Internet (e.g., Heritage Cremation Services at 800-972-2070), but you’ll have to judge their reputability and whether the cost covers all expenses.

Today’s trivia

On which show did Ron Howard first appear as Opie?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Pandas may be one of the cutest creatures on Earth, but animal researchers know they can be as finicky as Morris the cat. For example, they crave bamboo even though it is not particularly nutritious, and they’re picky about who they have sex with. Now, scientists find that the often solitary creatures want their space as well — lots of it. In a new study in Scientific Reports, researchers find that a panda prefers to have a living area of at least 44 square miles. Sure, they’ll take less if necessary, but after studying 5,569 potential habitat areas, the study authors found there was a 90 percent chance of finding a panda only when those areas were 44 square miles or greater.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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