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USC leaders take blame for missing passing of mega-donor's mother, looking to repair ties

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University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen (center) speaks with Eddie King, Special Assistant to the President for System Affairs, (left) and Derham Cole, the newly appointed Vice President for System Affairs, during a break of the April 9 board meeting. Caslen and board chairman Dorn Smith knew about the death of USC mega-donor Darla Moore's mother a day before the April 3 funeral but failed to share the information. Moore sent a scathing letter to school leaders on April 5 as Caslen was instructing his staff to send condolences. Andy Shain/Staff

COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina leaders accepted the blame for not quickly acknowledging the passing of the mother of the school's biggest donor, Darla Moore, who angrily wrote off her alma mater after the incident.

"I deeply regret the way our response was delayed, and I take full responsibility as a president of the university," USC President Bob Caslen told The Post and Courier on April 9.

Nearly a week after her 89-year-old mother passed away, Moore, a Lake City financier, received flowers from the university and calls from trustees, sources with knowledge told The Post and Courier. USC also sent a memorial in Lorraine Moore's name to the National Bean Market Museum in Lake City.

Caslen said that he sent Moore a hand-written note, and USC board Chairman Dorn Smith said he has tried to call Moore. Neither have received a reply.

Moore's silence is a sign of the fractured relationship between the state's largest college and its biggest benefactor that worsened two years ago during the troubled presidential search when she asked the board to restart the search rather than hire Caslen, a retired general and West Point superintendent.

Caslen said Moore has not spoken with him since his arrival in 2019. She also has had little interaction with the board of the university where she has donated more than $75 million and the business school bears her name.    

USC leaders knew of Lorraine Moore's passing on April 2, the day after she died.

Smith told The Post and Courier that he saw her obituary in a Florence newspaper while flying with Caslen to the NCAA women's basketball Final Four in San Antonio. But they did not share the news immediately.

After the Gamecocks lost and officials returned to Columbia on April 3, Caslen waited until after Easter Sunday to tell his staff to send condolence letters to Moore on April 5, two days after Lorraine Moore's funeral. 

But by then, Moore sent her letter to university leaders that said "the deepest regret of my life is the effort and resources I have expended on your behalf."

"We deeply regret we did not do it sooner," Caslen said. "I'll do whatever I need to build a relationship. We as a university really need to repair this relationship."

Smith said he regrets what happened, which he called a "perfect storm" because Lorraine Moore's passing was not known widely, and he and Caslen went straight to the game.

"From that standpoint, it's just unfortunate and it's something that happens," Smith said. "Miss (Darla) Moore is a wonderful lady. She is a class act. We certainly have every intention of doing everything at the university to repair the relationship."

Smith led trustees in a moment of silence in Lorraine Moore's memory during an April 9 meeting, saying at the end that Darla Moore was "in our thoughts and our prayers."

To make matters worse for USC, the school's archrival Clemson University sent condolences to the funeral. Darla Moore donated $10 million to Clemson for its school of education, which is named after her late father who played football for the Tigers. 

USC's direct contact with Moore came after the school issued a public statement expressing condolences and appreciation to her on April 6 when The Post and Courier first reported her scathing letter to university leaders.

It's unclear whether USC's gestures eased Moore's outrage at university leadership were not successful. She declined a request for comment on April 9.

While Moore has donated to other schools, USC has been a main focus in her efforts to improve education in the state.

After receiving no acknowledgement about her mother's death, Moore told school leaders she expected more from USC for what she called the "most exceptional generosity in the history of this state."

"There is not a university in the country that would exhibit this degree of thoughtless, dismissive and graceless ignorance of the death of a parent of their largest donor," Moore said in her letter. "I continue to be embarrassed and humiliated by my association with you and all you so disgracefully and incompetently display to the community you are charged to serve and to whom you look for support."

Missing her mother's passing was the latest recent spat between Moore and USC leadership.

In 2010, USC canceled bidding for architects to design a new business school building so the university could hire Moore’s choice. A USC foundation paid for the New York architect of the modern-looking $106.5 million structure, the most expensive built on campus.

A year later, her removal from a gubernatorial-appointed seat on the USC board by newly elected Gov. Nikki Haley drew a large campus and community outcry that included a Statehouse protest by students.

On the day before USC's board would vote to hire Caslen in 2019, Moore asked the school to restart the presidential search. She was upset at how the search was conducted, especially after trustees were lobbied by Gov. Henry McMaster to hire Caslen, a retired West Point superintendent. 

During the troubled 2019 presidential search, Moore was approached as a possible successor to Harris Pastides. A trustee told The Post and Courier that Moore rejected his overture.

Follow Andy Shain on Facebook (andyshain12) and Twitter (@andyshain)

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