Faculty

Former Chancellor Brings Emotional Resonance to ‘S-Town’

April 07, 2017

Diedra Laird, The Charlotte Observer
Thomas Moore displays the handmade portable sundial given to him in 2012 by John McLemore, a central character in the podcast "S-Town." As a professor at Birmingham-Southern College more than 30 years ago, Mr. Moore was a mentor to Mr. McLemore, and their friendship continued across the years.

Since those days, when Thomas F. Moore whiled away the hours with a promising young eccentric named John B. McLemore, the Earth has made 30-plus trips around the sun.

“One of the many subtexts of 'S-Town' is the sobering suggestion that higher education failed to stimulate a man of unquenchable curiosity.”

Mr. Moore was a chemistry professor at Birmingham-Southern College, and Mr. McLemore was unlike any other student he had ever had. The young man had come from Woodstock, Ala., a nearby rural town, where, to this day, winding dirt roads defy the accuracy of global positioning systems. From this little town — this "shit town," as Mr. McLemore would say in later years — came an unlikely prodigy who would hold court in Mr. Moore’s classroom, drawing elaborate geometric equations on his professor’s blackboard, explaining the mechanics of the astrolabe, an ancient Greek astronomical instrument.

Of course, "John B." thought his professor understood.

"I was lost from the get-go," Mr. Moore recalled in a recent interview with The Chronicle. "I’ve got a Ph.D. in chemistry; he’s a freshman or a sophomore by this time, from Woodstock, Ala. Could he know anything I couldn’t understand? In his mind, ‘No.’ So he would stand there for hours, just going on and on about how this thing worked."

If a professor is lucky, he or she might have one John B. — an unforgettable student who forges a relationship that proves impervious to distance and time. Mr. Moore would move on. He would rise through the ranks, becoming a vice president at Winthrop University before capping off his administrative career as chancellor of the University of South Carolina Upstate, where he stepped down, in 2016. Mr. McLemore would never leave Woodstock.

But he would call his mentor.

And call.

And call.

And call.

"Is the doctor in?" he would ask the professor’s children.

No.

"Well tell ‘im Joooooohn B. called," Mr. McLemore would say.

Lately, Mr. Moore has been thinking a lot about his protégé. Those moments from the early 1980s, when Mr. McLemore devoured Birmingham-Southern’s library books for diagrams of gears and clocks and sundials, are more vivid now in Mr. Moore’s mind. So too are they vivid in the minds of millions of other people, who have come to know more than anyone ever expected about the life of Mr. McLemore.

A Special Brand of Brilliance

Mr. McLemore’s story is at the center of S-Town, a hit podcast from the creators of This American Life and Serial. The story, which begins with an investigation of a supposed murder in Woodstock, Ala., morphs into a Flannery O’Connor-esque exploration of Mr. McLemore’s tortured existence as a queer-identifying depressive polymath in a community rife with violence, gossip, bigotry and, yes, the occasional nipple piercing.

For all of its lingering gothic mystery, S-Town speaks with clarity about Mr. McLemore’s special brand of brilliance. So skilled was he in the restoration of precious clocks that collectors far up the Eastern seaboard would travel to tiny Woodstock to procure his services. His erratic mind, a complex hedge-maze of wonder and misery, fixated with seemingly equal measure on the global crisis of climate change and what he perceived as a local scourge of pedophilia.

"The enigma of John," Mr. Moore said. "You couldn’t not be engaged and captivated by him, and you couldn’t not be disturbed — in some cases, infuriated — by him, by that engagement. Really quite phenomenal. Such a mind for all kinds of mechanical and projective, geometric things. He figured out how to make an astrolabe, for God’s sake."

But John McLemore never completed his college degree. Indeed, one of the many subtexts of S-Town is the sobering suggestion that higher education failed to stimulate a man of unquenchable curiosity. That is a stubborn fact to swallow for Mr. Moore, who has spent his life in academe.

"It reveals some of the problems with the education system writ large," Mr. Moore said. "John had an incredible, insatiable curiosity. When he got interested in something, he would exhaust it, and learn it hook, line, and sinker — top to bottom — every ‘i’ dotted, every ‘t’ crossed. The astrolabe was an example of that, figuring out how to get all the information that was available. And there were no digital information sources at that time. It was all print and library loan."

If Mr. McLemore had been permitted to design his own independent-study curriculum or if he had attended St. John’s College, a great-books institution, "perhaps he would have gotten a degree — maybe two or three," Mr. Moore said.

"Fitting into a system is not who he was, and that’s not going to work. ‘Don’t tell me I have to do it because the system says I have to do it. Give me a reason for doing it that makes me want to do it,’ and he would do it.

"His genius," Mr. Moore continued, "that he had at age 18-19, was of a very different world: It’s of ancient time keeping, and an ancient navigation, and design of mechanical systems to show time, and phases of the moon, and seasons of the year, and complicated multiple mechanisms that coordinate and work together around really one escapement — the ticker of the clock. And understanding all of the gear systems and changes that are involved in making that work: He could do that.

"There’s not a lot of that going on in college these days. Or even in 1981, -2, and -3 when he was there. So it was a misalignment. I’ve often described John as being born out of time — just at the wrong time. But it was what it was."

The Challenges of Educators

S-Town, which unfolds over seven episodes, is best appreciated without foreknowledge of its many plot twists. Suffice it to say, however, it is a bittersweet tale that raises elemental questions about what constitutes a life well lived. It also meditates, however obliquely, on the challenges of educators like Mr. Moore to help students who are clearly troubled.

Mr. Moore referred Mr. McLemore to a college counselor for depression, but the student soon discontinued medication. He tried to dissuade Mr. McLemore from using a dangerous process, known as fire gilding, in his workshop, but Mr. McLemore continued with the risky behavior.

From the day he met "John B.," it was clear to Mr. Moore that the student felt isolated and picked on. Here was a kid from the country, surrounded by the children of doctors and lawyers at a private liberal-arts college.

It was not until years later, after college, that Mr. McLemore would confide in Mr. Moore about his queer sexual orientation.

"John just felt different because he was different, and sexual identity was one aspect of that," Mr. Moore said. "This might sound a little crazy, but it’s not clear to me that being openly gay would have made him seem more different at Birmingham-Southern than he already seemed."

Mr. Moore appears in just two episodes of S-Town, which he says were drawn from a conversation of nearly five hours with Brian Reed, the host and co-producer of the podcast. But the professor helps to define the story’s emotional core, revealing in a choked voice the admiration he had for his wayward student.

The professor remembers, in one of the podcast’s moving segments, a fall afternoon that passed into evening with his student, who talked on and on about his ideas, oblivious to Mr. Moore’s thoughts of returning home to his wife.

Mr. Moore recalls thinking, "I’m not sure John’s ready to go yet."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.

Corrections (4/8/2017, 8:02 a.m.): The photo caption originally stated that Thomas Moore was a professor at Winthrop University when he met John B. McLemore. Mr. Moore was at Birmingham-Southern College at the time, and later took a job at Winthrop. The caption also stated that Mr. Moore received the sundial in 2005, while he actually received it in 2012.