Tom Wolfe’s visit exhibited the right stuff

On the counter of Shirt Tales, the embroidery business in downtown Laurinburg, is a signed copy of Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

It is inscribed to the shop’s owner Jim Willis.

Jim’s wife, Frances, got the best-selling author and journalist to sign the iconic book during the writer’s 1988 visit to Laurinburg to see his sister, Helen Evans.

Frances Willis said she had always admired Wolfe’s magazine writing and books like “The Right Stuff.” She became a fan of the man after meeting him in person.

“I was invited to a charming home in Johns Station by old family friends to meet Tom Wolfe,” she said. “He was as charming as his sister and very gracious to me, a star struck fan.”

Wolfe died last week at the age of 87.

Frances Willis said she asked Wolfe to sign “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” because it was one of her favorites. The book takes a novelistic look at the counterculture, centering on the LSD-influenced antics of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on their coast-to-coast bus trip.

The style would soon be called New Journalism — the use of fiction-writing techniques in journalism.

Wolfe also helped coin phrases that have joined the American lexicon like “radical chic,” “the me generation” and “the right stuff.”

Not only was Wolfe’s writing like no other. His fashion sense was his own as well. He adopted a white suit as his trademark in 1962.

Jim Willis said he heard that Wolfe began wearing the white suit in the summer, but because of a lack of funds and the suit’s heavy material, the writer continued to wear it when the temperatures dipped.

The outfit became a sensation and Wolfe added a white homburg hat, high-collared shirt and two-tone shoes.

Wolfe would later say it helped him in his reporting by disarming the people he observed, making him, in their eyes, “a man from Mars, the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know.”

During his visit to Laurinburg, Frances Willis said Wolfe was without the white suit, but “he did have some really snazzy socks on.”

Willis said she only got to meet Wolfe once, but that was enough.

“It is not often that you get to meet someone famous that you also admire,” she said. “I did.”