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'S-Town' Fans Flock to John B.’s Legacy Guest Book

(Dinodia Photo / Getty Images)

Podcast listeners share their sympathies for the "tortured genius."

“John B. McLemore, age 49, of Woodstock, AL passed away Monday, June 22, 2015.”

His obituary continues just as it begins, with a plain recitation of facts: his deceased father, his surviving mother, the when and where of funeral services. But now, in April 2017, nearly two years after John B. McLemore's death, his online Guest Book has lit up with dozens of entries from people around the country. Of the 141 entries currently displayed there, four were submitted in 2015. The other 137 have come in a two-week span in 2017. Why?

The answer is in the entries themselves: “I ‘met’ you today while listening to S-Town,” Vanessa B. of New York wrote on March 28, 2017.

S-Town is an engrossing podcast that was released the same day that Vanessa B. submitted her message. Produced by members of the teams behind the hit 2014 podcast Serial and the long-running public radio show This American Life, S-Town begins as a small-town murder mystery brought to host Brian Reed’s attention by a series of emails from a resident, John B. McLemore, a striking real-life character of brilliance, profanity, tragedy and paradox. As the show progresses through seven episodes (all released simultaneously), it becomes something else: a sometimes painfully intimate portrait of McLemore. His death is reported early in the series.

Some 11 million listeners downloaded S-Town in its first week of release. Clearly, many have been so moved by McLemore’s story that they searched for his name online, leading them to his obituary (originally published in The Birmingham News) and Guest Book (hosted here at The sentiments they’ve shared over the past couple of weeks reveal not only the uniqueness of McLemore’s personality but also how successful the S-Town team has been in capturing it and making it resonate with listeners:

“I wish I could've learned more about you, you interesting brilliant man. My heart goes out to your memory, and my thoughts to Mary Grace.” —Bradyn Austin (Madison, Wisconsin)

“Rest easy John B. From what I've heard about you in the past day you were incredibly aware of the world around you. We need more people like you in this world, people who care.” —Anonymous

“John, I couldn't breathe for a moment as I listed to 'S-Town' and heard of your passing. Less than an hour of of podcast made me care about you... It's spring time now and I like to think that your garden and maze are blooming wildly in your memory.” —Amber (South Carolina)

“I've been listening to S-Town as many others have... I was so saddened to hear of your passing. Just an episode in I had learned of such a complex intellectual intelligence that I'd never witnessed before. You were such a dynamic person that inspired and will continue to inspire many.” —Layne Carter (Louisiana)

“John, thank you for the beautiful and troubled life you lived and for inviting, in a round-about way, the world to hear.” —Anonymous

“You are magic. I am so glad you reached out to Brian and we all got to hear your story. What a legacy. The world was better for having you in it. Thank you. Though I never met you, I will never forget you.” —Alissa C., (Los Angeles)

“S-Town was a beautiful elegy to a complicated man. I'm sorry it's the only way most of us will ever know you, but glad we had even that opportunity.” —Eva R. (California)

“The maze was a beautiful metaphor for the complexities of life. I'm sorry you found the 'null set' so soon, but I think you will have made a difference I hope somewhere up there in the constellations you will feel that you did.” —CLW (Near, Alabama)

“What a true original you were, John B! I feel so fortunate to have learned a little bit about your life as presented in S-Town, and I can't help but think of your maze, with its gates that can close and open, as a large winding clock-path of life. I hope it's being cared for so we can all trod those paths one day. Rest easy my friend.” —Bryn Adamson (Athens, Georgia)

“What an extraordinary man you were John. I wish I could sit with you, hear your thoughts on solar energy and learn from you as I tame my garden. I wish I could drop off donations for your strays, laugh and argue with you about politics and listen to Vivaldi and Metallica. It is sad and understandable why you cut your days short. Its difficult for mere mortals to see our own worth. You were flawed and beautiful.” —Jane (Chicago)

“I wonder how many unique and brilliant people live and die in obscurity, their story never known to the world? I'm glad to at least have had the opportunity to hear yours John.” —Jacob

Those few entries from 2015, written by his local Alabamian friends and acquaintances, reflect the same character as the dozens of more recent entries:

“... Truly a musical genius with a true appreciation for music & horticulture …” —Andrew Warnberg

“John, I will always remember you as the eccentric genius you were. My fondest memories of you are from those late night phone conversations we would have.… Your genius was apparent to me from the beginning of our friendship, and was one reason I always enjoyed talking to you and hearing your sometimes unorthodox views on various subjects.…  You were often what could be called a 'tortured genius.'…” —Stan

“Dear John, You will always be in my thoughts as the genius you were in restoring fine old clocks for those fortunate enough to know about you. Also I remember fondly your compassion in caring for your mom and, of course, the many animals that you saved over the years.” —Anonymous

Some have wondered whether S-Town is too close an examination of McLemore’s private life, and whether McLemore had truly consented to such an intense portrait of himself. Those ethical concerns may well have merit, though so, too, do Brian Reed’s response to them, detailed in the podcast itself. In any case, the outcome has been that listeners feel a rare degree of closeness to a stranger whose life they've only known about for a few hours. Their sympathy for John B. McLemore, and for the family and friends that grieve him, is apparent in these messages they felt compelled to share.