Heroes of UT Tower tragedy honored

This story originally was published on Aug. 2, 2008.

Austin's most legendary thin blue line stretched three generations deep Friday along a sidewalk in front of a government office building with a peaceful view of the Hill Country.

One by one, the law enforcement officers who helped end Charles Whitman's killing spree from the University of Texas Tower 42 years ago stepped forward for a recognition of their bravery. In some cases, widows, children and grandchildren represented deceased officers.

"Much has been made about the perpetrator of this heinous crime and his needless slaughter of innocent people," Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said just before the county building was named the Tower Heroes Building. "But we are here today to acknowledge that on a day that displayed the absolute worst in human behavior, many ordinary people - law enforcement personnel, business people, students and others from all walks of life - showed just the opposite."

The ceremony at offices for Travis County Precinct 3 on Texas 71 West in Oak Hill, 12 miles from the UT Tower, marked the first time that the law officers and their families had gathered publicly to receive honors as a group. Their names are on a plaque outside the building.

Since Aug. 1, 1966, the officers who worked to bring peace to the UT campus that day have stayed in contact, offering one another a shoulder to lean on or an ear to listen to troubles. They say they aren't heroes, but officers who just did their jobs. Especially in the first months after the massacre, in which more than a dozen people were fatally shot, the officers would gather for fellowship, they said.

At Friday's ceremony, the men and their relatives acted as affectionately as a large family.

"They are like my big brothers," said Jennie Speed Shone, 63, who was giving her 18-month-old daughter a bath at home when Whitman fatally shot her husband, Austin police officer Billy Speed, as he ran toward the tower. "They've been my right arm. I just can't say enough good things about them."

With tears in her eyes, Shone recalled going to the spot where her husband died. She was with Houston McCoy, the Austin police officer who fired two shotgun blasts to stop Whitman's shooting spree in the northwestern corner of the UT Tower observation deck.

McCoy walked the widow through Whitman's movements and explained how he and two other Austin police officers, Jerry Day and Ramiro Martinez, along with armed and deputized civilian Allen Crum, stalked Whitman on the observation deck. "Both of us shared a lot of tears and memories that day," she said.

Harold Moe of Marble Falls and Milton Shoquist of Fair Oaks Ranch, north of San Antonio, two Austin officers who went up the tower and aided the two families Whitman ambushed in the upper stairwell, still like to tell how they worked on their day off to help end the massacre.

They had planned to go fishing but were working on a car at Moe's house when an officer friend came by. They heard the news of the tower shootings on the police radio, and Moe and Shoquist headed in to work. That night, after the city was settling back into safety, Moe asked his supervisor about putting in for pay.

Oh, the supervisor told him, just wait; the police chief "is going to do something special for you."

"I'm (still) waiting," Moe said, laughing as he tried to calculate what that pay would be worth in today's wages.

After the honors ceremony, the officers drove to the UT campus, where the university a few years ago dedicated a turtle pond north of the tower as a memorial spot for those affected by Whitman's crimes. They came especially to honor Claire Wilson James, 60. She was an 18-year-old pregnant freshman at UT when she was shot while walking across the South Mall with her boyfriend, Tom Eckman. She lay bleeding on the hot pavement for 90 minutes before being rescued. Eckman and the fetus were killed.

James, who was a civil rights activist at UT and is now a Seventh-day Adventist schoolteacher in Wyoming, flew to Austin for the building dedication ceremony and was overwhelmed by the opportunity to thank the officers who ended Whitman's shooting spree. The group placed a wreath of flowers at the turtle pond with a framed list of Whitman's victims. At the top of the list was James' unborn baby.

She thanked the officers and then made a confession.

"I was one of those bad kids that was saying bad things about the policemen (while in college), but I promise you I never have again," she told the retired officers. "I'm just so grateful that you saved me because there were a lot of things I needed to learn."

The officers chuckled, applauded and hugged her.

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