Despite all the time he’s spent at the University of Texas since Aug. 1, 1966, alumnus and Austin lawyer Jim Bryce still sees two versions of the campus.
There’s the present day — on a summer afternoon, he’s surrounded by anxious freshmen registering for classes at orientation — and the nightmarish overlay of that earlier day, darkened by the man he doesn’t name.
“Right here, it was filled with ambulances and gurneys,” he said, looking at a sunny driveway near the UT Tower, where Charles Whitman shot more than three dozen people, killing 14 of them, 50 years ago. “You never forget these things.”
Bryce said he and his fellow survivors have always wanted a proper memorial.
For most of the past 50 years, physical evidence that UT remembered the shooting was sparse. Flags were lowered on Aug. 1, but there was no memorial on campus until 1999, when a plaque was installed on a small rock by UT’s turtle ponds near the Tower. Still, Bryce said, the people who lived through the shooting wanted more.
The group that became the memorial committee formed in 2014, led by Bryce and other survivors. The new memorial — a bigger rock on the other side of the turtle pond — will be dedicated Monday. It lists the names of everyone Whitman killed, and UT is planning to add a QR code nearby for visitors to scan if they want to learn more about the shooting.
An upgrade to the 1999 memorial was originally promised in 2003, and some UT employees still refer to the shooting as “the incident” — but after years with little or no official acknowledgement of the anniversary, the university will dedicate considerable gravity to Monday’s event.
The Tower’s bells will toll and its clock will stop at 11:48 a.m., the moment Whitman started shooting. A bagpiper will lead everyone to the turtle ponds — the area officially known as the Tower Garden — where university President Gregory L. Fenves will speak. The clock, which hasn’t stopped since Sept. 11, 2002, will stay at 11:48 for the next 24 hours.
Not quite moving on
The 1999 memorial’s text mentioned “the tragedy of August 1, 1966,” but it answered few questions for someone without prior knowledge of the shooting — as Bryce learned one day when he encountered a group of college-aged men looking at it.
“You don’t know? August 1, 1966, the University of Texas?” he recalls saying. “None of them knew what it was.”
Bryce chose to assume they weren’t UT students.
But UT professor James Pennebaker said he discusses the Whitman shooting when he teaches introductory psychology classes, and he’s encountered plenty of freshmen who haven’t heard of it.
Pennebaker studies how societies respond to traumatic events, including the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“The tension between trying to forget and move on and to commemorate and remember occurs everywhere,” he said. At first, people experience an urge to bury such painful memories, but as they age and their children ask what happened, memorials, museums and such cultural items as books and movies start to appear.
He said his research shows a consistent pattern: about 25 years after a major event, the society affected by it makes a big push to commemorate it.
Pennebaker got his doctorate at UT in the 1970s, during the period when there was no formal acknowledgement of the shooting on campus. When he came back to Austin to teach in 1997, he was surprised to realize that the 25th anniversary had come and gone with no major memorial.
“Then they created what they called a memorial by the turtle pond,” he said. “I walk past it every day, and I still haven’t seen it.”
The top of the Tower itself, meanwhile, closed in the early 1970s after a series of suicides. It reopened in 1999, Tower tours coordinator Brittany Woods said, but people can only go up as part of an organized tour. Each tour is escorted by three UT police officers.
The tours are explicitly nonhistorical, and Woods said student guides are carefully trained on “how to guide patrons in their questioning.”
Questions about the shooting do come up — when Woods was a tour guide, she said, it happened nearly every tour. Guides are supposed to tell tour attendees that the Tower sniper is “not a topic we discuss up there,” Woods said.
“We don’t want to even open up that dialogue,” she said.
A post-Columbine generation
Erica Saenz, UT’s associate vice president for community and external relations, said gun violence elsewhere in the country tends to stir up conversations about the Tower shooting.
“I think, unfortunately, our students have become so accustomed to the news about gun violence around the country … not that they’re completely numb to it, but it doesn’t cause the kind of stir that I think it caused generations ago,” she said.
For a long time, she said, the Tower shooting stood on its own. It wasn’t part of a group of similar events, which she said is one reason people didn’t talk about it much.
“Like — well, that was just that freak thing that happened. Not only do we not talk about it, it’s not going to happen again,” she said.
Colorado’s Columbine High School shootings occurred in 1999, before most current UT undergrads started kindergarten. Bryce said he worries that students today don’t see the Tower shooting as an anomaly.
“To them, you know, these people are 18 years old,” he said. “Their entire life, literally, has been one mass shooting after another. So to hear about this, they think, ‘Oh, isn’t that the way it’s always been?’ Well, no! No, that’s not the way it’s always been.”
When Whitman started shooting from the Tower, Bryce was in the Student Union, waiting for his friend Sandra Wilson to meet him for lunch. She was shot on Guadalupe Street. He identified her at the hospital that afternoon and called her parents; she recovered.
Bryce and Wilson call each other every Aug. 1, he said. Fifty years later, his voice breaks and tears come to his eyes when he talks about the shooting.
Bryce said he and the other witnesses and survivors want to remember the people they lost — but in the long term, he said, they hope the memorial will provide “a framework of understanding.”
“An educational situation,” he said. “Something that we would hope could be in history teaching, social teaching.”
‘Cruel irony’ of scheduling
Saenz said the memorial committee had already started planning for the 50th anniversary when Gov. Greg Abbott signed Texas’ controversial campus carry gun bill in 2015.
The law makes it legal for people with handgun licenses to carry concealed guns inside campus buildings, subject to gun-exclusion areas established by each college president — and, in what Pennebaker called a “cruel irony,” the law goes into effect on Monday.
Claire Wilson, a memorial committee member who was hospitalized for weeks after being shot by Whitman, will be one of the speakers at the ceremony Monday. Wilson was eight months pregnant when the gunman shot her in the belly, killing the fetus. Wilson’s boyfriend was also killed in the sniper attack. She has publicly opposed legalizing guns on campuses.
At first, Saenz said, they talked about moving the date of the anniversary commemoration away from the actual anniversary because of the campus carry law, but that was eventually ruled out.
The memorial ceremony will go ahead at the time Whitman started shooting, just before noon.
“How to coordinate a ceremony in the middle of, potentially, we-don’t-know-what is something that we’ve been thinking about and working on for quite a while,” she said.
The Tower mass shooting, 50 years later
This story is part of a monthlong American-Statesman project about the devastating UT Tower sniper attack of Aug. 1, 1966, when a young engineering student named Charles Whitman showed America how one ruthless person can inflict fear and grief on an entire city. Even after 50 years, ripple effects reach into Austin’s present — not just for those who were on campus that day, but for all of us. The impacts range from anxiety over a new campus carry gun law at UT-Austin to changes in modern police response to mass shootings that are informed by the acts of Austin police officers on that day.
UT clock stops Monday
Monday’s anniversary ceremony will begin at 11:40 a.m. on the Main Mall. At noon, the ceremony will move to the Tower Garden, and at 12:10 p.m., a new memorial will be dedicated.
UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves will speak, along with shooting survivor Claire Wilson, shooting witness Jim Bryce and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who was elected student body president in 1967.