Add this to S-Town buzz: Carolinians may know the professor
Like millions of other Americans, I have spent much of the past week obsessing with every plot twist of the podcast S-Town. I’ve joined you in posting cryptic raves on social media, trying to avoid spoilers while urging friends to tune in to the voice of John B. McLemore, the brilliantly eccentric and profanely cynical clockmaker at the center of the seven-part series.
But the final episode brought an extra twist for me: The Alabama chemistry professor who enters the saga early as one of McLemore’s oldest friends is the same person who welcomed me to Winthrop University some 20 years ago, when I was a working mom inching my way through grad school.
If you live around here, you may know Tom Moore from his 25 years at Winthrop, just south of Charlotte in Rock Hill. Or perhaps you’ve encountered him during his five recent years as chancellor of USC Upstate in Spartanburg.
The rest of the country is getting to know him as one of the first outsiders to recognize McLemore’s genius and pain. Roughly 30 years before McLemore emailed This American Life seeking an investigation into murder, corruption and general human sorriness in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama (the title is a sanitized version of McLemore’s name for that town), Moore was listening to McLemore’s addictively bizarre monologues.
Podcast host Brian Reed, a reporter based in New York City, provides the counterpart to the voices of McLemore and his rural Southern community. Their story takes such bizarre twists that saying much about it risks ruining the adventure for new listeners.
As the series introduction puts it, Reed starts out to “investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”
Boy, what’s that kid doing here?
Chemistry professor Tom Moore’s reaction to a teenage John B. McLemore
Moore was a professor at Birmingham-Southern College, a small, private liberal arts school, when a teenage McLemore showed up for his general chemistry class in the early 1980s. With his bushy red hair and scruffy clothes, McLemore was a misfit in the preppy crowd, Moore says.
Moore describes McLemore as a suffering genius from the start, a poor student and eventual dropout whose mind soared only when he set his own challenges. Moore connected with the defiantly friendless young man, opening his lab for McLemore’s experiments and spending hours listening to the ramblings that have now become familiar to America.
In a narrative that has been described as a Southern Gothic nonfiction novel, Reed’s poignant description of an encounter between Moore and McLemore stands out:
“Tom says he can vividly remember sitting in his office with John on a fall day, looking at the sun while it set outside his window, watching the sky turn colors over campus as he thought about his wife waiting for him at home, but looking back and John and thinking, ‘I’m not sure John’s ready to go yet,’ then listening to John go on as outside the sky turned dark.”
He babysat for my boys one night.
The class ended – Moore says McLemore made a D, or maybe a C – but the friendship didn’t. Moore visited McLemore’s home three or four times, years before McLemore built the hedge maze that captured the imagination of Reed and his listeners.
Moore’s wife, and later their sons, got used to hearing McLemore’s drawl on the other end of the phone: “Is the doctor in? Well, tell him John B called.”
Moore moved to Winthrop, a state school in Rock Hill, in 1986. McLemore visited once, to deliver a clock Moore had bought from him.
In 1996 I did a story about a 76-year-old graduate of Winthrop’s master of liberal arts program. I cold-called Moore, who was running that program at the time. Before I knew it, I was filing an application that would shape my life for the next six years. Moore made me feel like I was being welcomed into a family of quirky intellectuals exploring the nature of knowledge.
We talked several times after I earned my degree in 2002 (yes, I took the slow track), as Moore advanced to become vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. But we lost touch after Moore took a job as chancellor of USC Upstate in 2011.
Don’t give up on him. He’ll get to it.
It was after Moore moved to Spartanburg that he received a package from McLemore. Inside was a handcrafted portable sundial, which features in the final chapter of S-Town.
McLemore had started promising to make it as a birthday gift for Moore back in the 1980s. It arrived in 2012.
“That was John,” Moore said with a chuckle this week. “Don’t give up on him. He’ll get to it.”
McLemore had told Moore that he was talking to a reporter from This American Life. So Moore wasn’t entirely surprised when he got a call in November 2015. He and Reed spent hours in Moore’s office, talking and admiring the sundial.
It was only during that final episode, when Reed mentioned Moore being in South Carolina, that I realized McLemore and I might have bonded with the same Tom Moore. I looked up Moore’s bio and got his current phone number from USC Upstate.
Moore laughed as I rushed through the greeting and blurted my question: “Are you in S-Town?”
He was. He told me had left the chancellor’s post last year and is teaching until his retirement in May.
Before we had finished talking, Moore mentioned that he thought of me recently when he was frying bacon – and proceeded to describe in accurate detail a paper I had written for him 15 years earlier, about growing up without a sense of smell.
There was definitely some money.
I asked him what he thought of the podcast – “It was brilliant” – and peppered him with questions about the loose threads remaining in the saga. Of course, I can’t share many of them without being a story-spoiler.
But anyone who has heard of S-Town knows that McLemore talked incessantly about stashing cash and/or gold on his property – and that a lot of people in town still argue about where it has gone, or whether it really existed.
So it’s fair to say that McLemore talked money with Moore, and at one point told him he had at least $400,000.
“There was definitely some money,” Moore says.
As for who has it now, Moore can only speculate along with the rest of us.