Just before noon on Monday, Aug. 1, 1966, Ora Houston and Sharon Alexander were eating lunch at the Pancake House at San Antonio and West 19th streets — the latter, later renamed for Martin Luther King Jr. — just southwest of the University of Texas campus.
“It was such a beautiful day,” Alexander said recently. “All of a sudden, we started hearing all these sirens and went outside to see what was going on. There were ambulances, police cars and fire trucks everywhere. It was a terrible sight to see.”
Someone told the young women — one a graduate of Anderson High School in East Austin, the other of Austin High School — that a person atop the UT Tower was shooting people.
“We could see the smoke coming from the Tower,” Alexander said. “We were told to go to the back of the restaurant, because the bullets could reach us from where we were standing. A very shocking day, one I never want to see again and will never forget.”
Almost everyone who survived that scorching August afternoon in Austin remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Charles Whitman was firing on passers-by. Those who were caught up in the action — around campus, or in the emergency room or at police headquarters downtown — still share traumatic memories.
Perhaps no city could have been more unprepared for the tragedy Whitman unleashed. Ninety minutes later, however, most of Austin was going about its business, shaken but safe.
That night, Alexander and Houston attended an O’Jays concert at the municipal building that would later be named Palmer Auditorium and that, in 2008, would be radically reconfigured as the Long Center for the Performing Arts.
“The O’Jays expressed their condolences for the lives lost and expressed sympathy and a speedy recovery for all those injured,” Alexander recalled. “It was a good concert.”
To say that Austin was a different city in 1966 is to risk preposterous understatement. Just 218,981 people lived within the Austin city limits. Future booming suburbs such as Round Rock, Georgetown and Kyle were scarcely bigger than country towns. Nowadays, almost 10 times the 1966 city population crowds into the metropolitan area.
Photographs and films from the period show that the streets and the new Interregional Highway, also known as Interstate 35, were free from congestion by today’s standards. There was no MoPac (Loop 1). Mueller Airport, which looked like an overgrown bus station despite its modernist control tower, rarely saw lines or delays.
Many people, especially east of the new freeway and out in the country, lived in grinding poverty. But there were no billionaires, no palazzos on the western hills, no sleek downtown condo towers — Whitman murdered his mother in one of the few mid-rise residences, the Penthouse Apartments at West 13th and Guadalupe streets — so the city’s concepts of inequality and affordability were expressed in different ways during those low-wage, low-rent years.
The perceived divide between East and West Austin was still pronounced for some.
“When I came to the university in January 1957, I was told several times not to go to East Austin ‘because they kill people there,’” former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia said. “When I finally went there several years later, I found out that both minority communities had people who were very kind and caring. I stayed mostly in the Mexican-American side — south of East Seventh Street — basically because I was invited into their homes in a very warm and friendly way.”
Low-key and practical, Lester Palmer, the eponym for the auditorium, was voted by fellow council members to be mayor. Direct elections of the mayor wouldn’t arrive until 1971. In the year of the shooting, J.H. Watson was Travis County judge and Bob Miles was the Austin police chief.
Although the Tower tragedy put Miles in the spotlight, he had handled strife over police bugging of suspected criminals and the growing anti-Vietnam War and civil rights protests. He also oversaw the blending of the vice squad and the narcotics squad into the plainclothes Criminal Investigation Division.
An Anglo business establishment still ran city government — and almost everything else. Then as now, Austin tolerated liberals and eccentrics. The lone female City Council member, Emma Long, scored some moral victories as well as lasting ones during her long tenure, which began in 1948.
Racial tensions had risen two years earlier when protesters shut down city government to accelerate the desegregation that had begun with a Supreme Court ruling regarding the University of Texas in the late 1940s. Nonetheless, the Human Rights Commission wouldn’t be given teeth until 1968. And it was not until 1971 that Beryl Handcox became the first African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to the City Council; the first Latino, John Treviño, came in 1975.
“In my recollection, in 1966, Austin was a hotbed of liberals and cowboys and the university crowd,” said Larry Todd, the second news director at TV and radio station KHFI, who arrived a month after the slayings. “But it began to change. A lot of people have said that America lost its innocence with the Kennedy assassination. But I think the Tower sniper incident changed Austin, that it lost its innocence and that’s when it began changing from a town to a city.”
A scan of newspaper archives and city directories shows that Austin’s business life centered on the basics: health, food, shelter and clothing, with a little bit of entertainment to brighten the hushed gray-greenness of the city. Business was basic in part because the three generators of primary income in Travis County — agriculture, state government and the University of Texas — did not, in fact, generate much income.
To give the reader a sense of the local economy: The 1966 phone directory lists only five businesses related to “electronic computing.” Instead, pages and pages are given over to cleaners, grocers, pest control services, car lots and repair services, along with the obligatory lawyers, doctors, funeral directors and insurance companies.
For a long time, only two public high schools, almost invisible to each other, had educated most of the town’s youth: primarily Anglo and Latino Austin High, which traces its roots to 1881, and its African-American counterpart, Anderson High, which began as part of the Robertson Hill School in 1888.
McCallum High (north) and Travis High (south) had opened in 1953. Lanier High — named for an even-then-obscure Confederate poet — followed in 1961, and Reagan High, named for another Confederate, came in 1965.
The city’s newspapers, the Austin Statesman and The Austin American, owned by the same group — along with TV and radio stations — devoted powerful coverage to the Tower shootings.
Still, as the shock wore off, Austin knew how to have a good time. Some of it quite simple.
Then as now, dining out was prime Austin entertainment, even if the food was mostly casual. There were Tex-Mex outlets (El Matamoros, Casa Loma, El Gallo, Matt’s El Rancho, etc.), hamburgers (2-J’s, More Burger, Dirty Martin’s), diner fare (The Nighthawk, Southern Dinette, Frisco), cafeterias (Wyatt’s, Piccadilly) and some rare gems, such as Ernie’s Chicken Shack on East 12th Street or the Stallion on North Lamar Boulevard.
Cocktail lounges with playful names included Charlie’s Play House, Eleventh Door, El Tropico, Jade Room, Playboy Lounge, Snook’s Lounge, Villa Latina and the Swingers Club.
Although downtown was hollowing out, in part because of white flight to the suburbs, a good deal of shopping was still done there. Highland Mall, the city’s first indoor shopping mecca, wouldn’t open until 1971. Downtown, one could browse in Yaring’s, Lerner Shops and Scarbrough’s, among other stores.
There weren’t many charities in town. Whereas these days more than 6,000 Austin nonprofit groups bring in almost $5 billion a year, in 1966, mostly modest contributions — the famous “$100 West Austin checks” — made their way to groups such as the Settlement Home, Caritas and the Austin Symphony Orchestra.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s family owned a good chunk of the broadcast media in Austin, including one of the two commercial TV stations, KTBC, which, although a CBS affiliate, could cherry-pick programs from the other national networks. KHFI made do with the leftovers.
Radio was similarly constrained.
“Compared to the 50-plus radio station signals that serve the city now … Austin had only 9 radio stations in 1966,” said longtime broadcaster David Jarrott, who has put together a detailed history of the business at that time. “KNOW was the No. 1 radio station, with 50-60 percent of the audience.”
Nationally, the No. 1 song during that escapist summer week, according to Billboard, was “Wild Thing” by the Troggs, followed by “Hanky Panky” from Tommy James & the Shondells, “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from the Texas-born Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, “The Pied Piper” from Crispian St. Peters and “I Saw Her Again” from the Mamas & the Papas.
The biggest shows in town, however, were UT football games, Austin Aqua Fest and the Austin Livestock Show, predecessor of Rodeo Austin.
Earlier that year, the Livestock Show, backed by the Chamber of Commerce, had filled the funky, since-demolished City Coliseum, located near Palmer. Meanwhile, Aqua Fest offered more than 50 concerts, parades, races and water recreation events under a “Discover Texas” theme, starting just four days after the tragedy and finishing with the “Rio Noche Night Lighted Water Parade.”
Led by KNOW disc jockey Mike Lucas, five of the Aqua Fest prize-winning bands — the Mustangs, the Wigs, Zakary Tanks, Reason Why and Baby Cakes — played a benefit dance for the victims of the shooting, raising $2,666.84.
“A pop station with over 60 percent of the market can do powerful things,” Lucas said. “And while Neal Spelce and KTBC got a lot of notoriety over the years for their reporting on the Tower shooting, KNOW was also there and did a bang-up job. I also recall our mobile unit taking a bullet during the shootings.”
Class of ’66
The Austin High Class of 1966 recently gathered for a 50th reunion. Jim Arnold, Jean Nelle and Neal Newberry were among those who helped organize a new scholarship for Austin High graduating seniors. Their memories of the times are mostly merry.
“Most of the class partied pretty heavily,” Arnold recalled. “Crowd surfing the football games — you’d see a body floating up the stands. I remember just a small number of African-American students enrolling. There wasn’t any antipathy that I observed. But also not a lot of socializing.”
Newberry points out that the school song went: “Beer, beer for old Austin High.”
“After football games, parents would let them throw a street party on a cul-de-sac,” Newberry said. “Some parties had local garage bands. No 13th Floor Elevators. I’d see them at New Orleans Club.”
Nelle remembers a Sadie Hawkins-themed senior party and cruising the Holiday House on Barton Springs Road. McCallum High was the big school rival at that time, and she would join friends on bird shoots on the north side of Anderson Lane.
She had a few African-American friends and went to their houses for dance parties. Nelle remembers one transfer student from Anderson High who gave an unexpected answer when asked why she changed schools.
“My parents made me come,” her new friend told her. “But I’m glad I did.”
These particular alumni sharply recall Aug. 1, 1966.
Arnold was working at the University Co-op, but a book shipment was late, so he was given the day off.
“I think it’s very likely that I would have been walking down Guadalupe to get a bite at GM Steakhouse,” he said. “For $2 you could get a full meal there.”
Nelle, who had lunched at the Holiday House on Guadalupe Street minutes before the shooting, remembers losing two classmates. Some friends had gone down to the Co-op to buy tickets for an upcoming Beach Boys concert.
“It started at 12:05 p.m.,” she recalled. “I was working at the health department, and we went to lunch early to miss the crowd. When we got out to Burnet Road, that’s when it came on the radio that somebody had been shot in front of the Co-op, as well as someone on a bicycle near the baseball stadium.”
Newberry says two other classmates pulled injured folks off the Quad.
“I was driving my dad’s truck for Tarrytown Pharmacy when I heard that,” Newberry said. “My late brother Brian, who was a junior, drove his Olds Cutlass down there by campus with the top down. A guy warns him: ‘Hey buddy, he’s shot somebody farther away than you.’”
The days after
“In the quiet morning hours of Tuesday, there were those who had come to see more and others who, painfully and unwillingly, had already seen too much,” wrote Derro Evans for the Aug. 2, 1966, Austin Statesman. “The combination of the curious and the stunned walked quietly about the UT campus in the aftermath of Monday’s day of death. There were signs of an outward calm and normalcy that a visitor sought for reassurance: a gardener watering shrubs, the sounds of a few typewriters clicking away, students reading in the Texas Union and the familiar sound of ‘pay-puh’ cried by newsboy Gordon Knight.”
Classes had been canceled, but shops on the Drag were open, some while under repair.
“But there were indications that this day was radically different,” Evans continued. “The most ominous sign was all the silence. The youthful sounds of laughter and enthusiastic conversation were missing. The visitors stood in the August sunshine; some would say to each other, ‘That’s where he was — up there,’ or ‘Here’s where three people were shot.’ Most of the time, the people waited silently, shading their eyes as they looked above.”
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. They range from anxiety over a new campus carry law at UT to changes in modern police response to mass shootings that are informed by the acts of Austin police officers on that day.