inhibition that hints at mischief, that’s more
the mien of a classroom teacher than a dean.
When he wanted to make a point with his
chemistry students, he made movies for
them. Eight years ago when he found out
the new chancellor was a serious classical
musician, he worked up a mock Durham
Bulls letterhead, wrote a note inviting him
to come play the organ at the ballpark when
he had time, and put the department chair’s
signature on it. When he stepped to the
podium on the day he became chancellor-elect, he looked like the man who was taken
off the list of people to appear in the GAA’s
new video because he wasn’t bubbly
enough, and he said exactly what he was
THE NEWS & OBSERVER/SCOTT SHARPE ’ 83
Thorp was an undergraduate just 22
years ago, and in 15 years back in Chapel
Hill he has gone from assistant professor to
Kenan Professor, been decorated with
teaching awards, made vice chair for
undergraduate studies two years after he
arrived, and spun two companies off his
research. He spent four years rehabilitating
a faltering Morehead Planetarium; went
back to chemistry as chair; and was pulled
out two years into the usual five-year term
to be dean of the largest academic unit on
campus, the College of Arts and Sciences.
They didn’t wait for him to finish a year
there; but then, there’s talk that Thorp, 43,
whose wife said that when they were dating “his brain scared me to death,” was
spotted for the big job a long time ago.
James Moeser, like his predecessors, was
buttoned-down;Thorp is not far removed
from the tennis shoes propped up on his
desk. “I’m gonna be as much a shirtsleeve
chancellor as possible,” he said.
On announcement day in May, Thorp,
who started the job July 1 and will be
installed in October, said UNC System
President Erskine Bowles ’ 67 was pumping
gas into his car in Greensboro when he
made the offer official.
“I will never forget the Exxon on Wen-dover Avenue.” There’s the punch line, followed by what actors call the throwaway
line: “It’s a good thing I didn’t run in to get
some Nabs.” Big laugh, bigger laugh.
OK. The chancellorship is serious business, and the devil is in the details. He
“The night before, Patti and I argued
about whether it should be Nabs, Cheer-wine or a Slim Jim.”
Above, a graduate student discusses a DNA experiment with Assistant Professor Thorp in 1995.
He knew when to get out and play, too — opposite page, at the piano in Hyde Hall last spring. At
right, he started as a techie in the community theater run by his parents, but he also tried acting,
here with his father, Herbert ’ 54, and younger brother Clay ’ 90.
‘A nerd like me’
Thorp instantly identifies the weakness
in his resume: In foreign languages he did
only the minimum.
“I hate it because a nerd like me could
have learned a lot of languages if I knew it
was gonna be important.”
A nerd like him didn’t pass on too
many opportunities to learn and explore.
(“In 1974, I was honor camper at Camp
Cheerio,” he told a gathering at a GAA
board dinner in 2002. “When I got home
my dad said, you know, we used to beat the
hell out of the honor camper.”)
As a kid in Fayetteville, he had the run
of one of the great platforms for self-discovery. His parents, Herbert ’ 54 and Bo
ONLINE: Related coverage, including
archive articles from the Review, is available
online at alumni.unc.edu/thorparchive.
’ 56, were organizing what would become
the Cape Fear Regional Theater, and
Thorp sampled the life of the technician,
the musician and the actor. Music, in fact,
tempted him to skip or delay college.
At 16, he and two friends took off for
Boston and a summer program at the elite
Berklee College of Music, where he studied jazz guitar. Soon afterward, while his
friends stuck with music, Thorp veered
toward science and filled out a single college application.
Tom Meyer, Arey Distinguished Professor of chemistry at UNC who was Thorp’s
undergraduate mentor, had 20 or so students working in his research lab. Thorp, he
said, “had me for a class, and he came to
me, and he walked into that environment,
and a whole world opened up to him.
“Students who are attracted early to
research tend to be the best. He was in the
smart, savvy class. I can remember him