AUSTIN, TEXAS—On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman ascended the University of Texas clock tower with a trunk full of weapons and unleashed 96 minutes of terror that effectively became a template for mass shootings and aroused in the public a new sensitivity to the threat of violence in public spaces.
Whitman, a 25-year-old student, Eagle Scout and Marine veteran, killed a receptionist and two members of a visiting family inside the tower. He then went onto the observation deck and began spraying sniper fire, turning a tranquil summertime campus into a scene of chaos and death.
In the half-century since, Whitman’s savagery has been echoed in mass shootings on other university campuses and at workplaces, elementary schools, post offices, movie theatres and nightclubs. And what seemed unthinkable in 1966 was re-enacted with alarming repetition in places like Columbine High School in Colorado, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.
“When I hear there’s another tragic shooting at a university, my heart breaks and I relive every excruciating moment of pain and mental anguish, knowing what the survivors or loved ones of those who are injured are going to go through,” said Adrian Littlefield, a semi-retired minister from Kirbyville, Texas, who was severely wounded in the University of Texas attack.
Whitman left a devastating carnage. Fourteen campus victims died that day, and more than 30 were wounded. Investigators also discovered that, hours earlier, Whitman had killed his wife and his mother, leaving behind a note tersely declaring “Both dead.” And, in a grim epilogue 35 years later, former electrical engineering student David H. Gunby died of kidney wounds sustained in the attack, bringing the death toll to 17.
On Monday, the university will dedicate a 6-foot-tall red granite marker inscribed with the victims’ names as it observes the 50th anniversary of the darkest day in its history. Such a tribute has been too long coming, some say.
“We have not as a society and a community done enough to remember the victims of this tragedy, and we’re going to have a very respectful ceremony,” said Gregory L. Fenves, the university president, who embraced efforts to erect a monument after taking office in June 2015. “This is part of our history at the University of Texas, we’re not going to hide from it, and I think we’ll be a stronger community by coming together to remember the tragedy.”
And as the school marks one of the bloodiest campus shootings in U.S. history, it will do so on the day that it is newly complying with a state law permitting concealed firearms inside university buildings, a measure enacted in 2015 by legislature in a victory for gun rights proponents.
Legislative supporters of the law said it was needed to protect students from the kind of violence that has taken place at the University of Texas and other schools.
But Fenves and an apparent majority of students and faculty members oppose the law, saying universities are no place for firearms.
“I’m glad that we aren’t letting the implementation of campus-carry mask the importance of that date,” said the student body president, Kevin Helgren, who will participate in Monday’s ceremony for the sniper victims. “But I do think it was pretty insensitive of the Legislature to decide that Aug. 1 was when it would go in effect.”
As the midday commemoration begins the tower clock will be turned off for only the second time in its history, at 11:48 a.m., the time Whitman began firing onto the campus grounds. It will remain off for 24 hours. Flags will be lowered to half-staff, the names of the victims will be read aloud and, as evening falls, the tower will be completely darkened in tribute to them.
The memorial was the outgrowth of efforts by a small group of former students and survivors who formed a committee that began working two years ago, enlisting the co-operation of administration officials. Austin’s Cook-Walden Funeral Home, whose ambulances were used to transport victims 50 years ago, provided funding for the Hill Country granite marker.
Fenves, 59, said he had made the memorial a priority but acknowledged past reluctance to openly confront the university’s most painful and traumatic chapter.
Jim Bryce, 74, an Austin lawyer who is co-chairman of the memorial committee, barely missed being at on the mall as a 24-year-old student when Whitman opened his barrage.
“There was a lot of thought that it was best just left unsaid,” Bryce said. “Now we’ve come to realize, and I think the university’s realized, that it’s far better to deal with it directly. It’s a healing, and it’s a going forward.”
The men and women who were caught up in Whitman’s rampage — most of them now retired and in their late 60s or early 70s — are looking back and measuring its impact on their lives, and in many cases unearthing long suppressed memories. A new documentary, The Tower, the release of a new book, Tower Sniper and anniversary-related media coverage have collectively served to draw the attacks back into the public’s consciousness.
Work on the documentary over the past four years helped spur the push for a monument while uniting survivors and witnesses of the tragedy, many of whom had not been in touch in decades, or had never met.
A former Austin police officer, Ramiro Martinez, one of two officers who confronted Whitman to end the attacks, returned to the tower in mid-July to reenact his encounter with the gunman. Referring to Whitman only as “the sniper,” Martinez said he had never had a nightmare but sometimes woke abruptly in the middle of the night with memories of that day.
“I feel satisfied that I did my job,” he said.
A fellow officer, Houston McCoy, followed with a 12-gauge shotgun. Martinez recalled that he ran toward Whitman as the sniper stood at the northwest corner of the tower, firing his service revolver repeatedly as he went. McCoy, who is now deceased, also fired with his shotgun. After emptying his revolver, Martinez reached back to grab McCoy’s shotgun, firing another blast.
“Once I had done that, I could tell that he was dead,” Martinez said.
Many of those on campus in 1966 can describe the day with video-like precision, recalling sirens, falling bodies, the thunder of gunfire from the tower and the answering volleys from police officers and vigilante citizens who rushed to the campus with weapons from home.
Forrest Preece, a former advertising executive and one of the organizers for the memorial, was walking across the street from the campus during Whitman’s rampage when “some flash of intuition” made him stop. Seconds later, he felt a bullet whiz past his ear. The bullet killed Harry Walchuk, a father of six who was at a nearby newsstand. “To this day,” Preece said, “I have no idea why I stopped.”
The first to fall from Whitman’s gunfire was Claire Wilson, now Claire Wilson James. Then an 18-year-old anthropology student who was eight months pregnant, James was struck as she walked onto the campus mall with her boyfriend, Tom Eckman. The gunfire killed Eckman and James’ unborn child, who is recognized on the granite marker as Baby Boy Wilson. “I thought I had stepped on a live wire,” she recalled recently.
James, unable to move and struggling to stay conscious, lay stricken for 90 minutes until John Fox, a 17-year-old freshman, rushed onto the mall and carried her to safety.
James, 68, who now lives in Texarkana, underwent seven operations and sustained “a lot of big scars.” She said she pushed beyond that day in 1966 by pursuing a teaching career and adopting a 4-year-old Ethiopian boy named Sirak in 1989. She also expresses forgiveness for her assailant, saying Whitman was “responsible for his actions” but was “so damaged and so messed up” by a brutal father while he was growing up in Florida.
In some ways, she said, her life has been like that of a tree struck by lightning.
“They’ll have a big scar running down them, and they keep on growing, and I always thought that’s a really great analogy for my life,” she said. “You have to go on.”
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