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No joke: My old pal Artly was a hero, too

This story originally was published on Aug. 5, 2008.

I've known for years that my buddy Artly Snuff is a funny guy. But I didn't know he was brave.

On the front page of Sunday's newspaper, we ran a photo from a video taken that awful day of Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman went up in the University of Texas Tower and started shooting people. Thirteen people and an unborn baby were killed that day. I think if it weren't for Artly Snuff and a couple of other guys, it might have been one more.

The video shows three men carrying Claire Wilson James and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, away from UT's South Mall. Eckman was killed by Whitman, and the unborn baby James was carrying died as well.

When the video was shot, Whitman was still in the tower. So the men carrying off James and Eckman were in the line of fire.

The man in the dark clothing at the right of the photo carrying James by her ankles is Artly Snuff, he says. Snuff, real name John Fox, is 59 and was a 17-year-old University of Texas freshman at the time.

Artly doesn't have any way of proving that was him in the picture, but, like I said, I've known him for a long time and I believe him. He's a joker, but this was no laughing matter.

For years Artly has performed comedy skits with the Austin funny band the Uranium Savages. He was the guy who came on stage carrying the giant fake razor blade when the Savages played the Johnny Cash sendup, "Because It's Mine, I Snort the Line." These days he serves as the curator of the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture on South Lamar. I've known Artly for about 30 years, but until this weekend I didn't know that on that tragic day, Artly had done something heroic.

Like most people who perform an act of heroism, Artly wouldn't call it that.

"This wasn't really anything to be thanked for, " Artly told me when I told him that James was in town over the weekend to thank the people who helped save her life 42 years ago. "It was a terrible day, and everyone did what needed to be done. Except for the death of my parents, it was the worst day of my life. He shot three people I'd gone to high school with, two of which died.

"I think about it this time every year, " Artly added. "I guess it makes you appreciate life more. You know, death can fall out of the sky. But after all these years, I still have the occasional dream of the images."

Artly said he was at the Stag Co-Op at 21st and Rio Grande streets playing chess with his friend James Love when he heard on KNOW radio that somebody was on the top of the UT Tower with an airgun.

"It was misreporting, " Artly said.

Artly and Love decided to check it out. Artly went to Austin High School with Love but said he doesn't know where he is today.

"As we were walking down the Inner Campus Drive, somebody was screaming at us to take cover," Artly recalled. So the two went to the third floor of the UT education building, where Artly first saw the pregnant James out the window, lying on the ground. From there, Artly said, he went to the Jefferson Davis statue on the South Mall and hid behind the base for cover.

"It was a miserably hot day, " Artly said. "I guess with the adrenaline and all, I got a mild case of heatstroke. There were a bunch of hedges there, and I went and sat in the shade. I was getting dizzy and nauseous. When I came out from the hedge, all the bodies were still there, and you could tell this woman was very, very pregnant. And it occurred to me if I was going through that much trouble, I couldn't imagine what she was going through. It was intolerable."

So Artly decided to stick his neck out.

"About five or six of us ran out there," he said. "James Love and I were the ones who carried Claire Wilson, the pregnant lady. I grabbed her ankles, and he grabbed her wrists."

Artly says a Vietnam veteran he didn't know carried Eckman's body off. The vet would be the guy to the left in the video image.

Artly and Love carried James down the stairs from the mall to the Jefferson Davis statue - "behind cover," Artly said. "There was a big wall there. Then there were other people. They took her farther down the driveway to where the ambulances were waiting."

Sure, Artly was worried about getting shot. Whitman "was an excellent shot," Artly said. "The majority of the people he hit were hit in the head or the torso. When I think about it I can still feel a little cold spot in the middle of my shoulder blades where I thought a shot was going to go in.

"Yeah, I've never been more scared," Artly added. "But I didn't really see much choice. None of us did."

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