Public healing cannot erase private grief

This story originally was published on June 13, 2001.

When her body came to rest after tumbling down two flights of stairs, Mary Lamport thanked God. She was alive, in spite of the multiple bullets that pierced her body.

And so was her son Michael. Mother and son talked as they went in and out of consciousness on the stairwell. Nearby, the man who shot them, Charles Whitman, was picking off victims from the observation deck at the University of Texas Tower. It was Aug. 1, 1966.

"We weren't supposed to be alive," she said of herself and her then-19-year-old son, who were sightseeing in Austin. Indeed, Lamport's 16-year-old son, Mark, and her sister-in-law Marguerite didn't make it.

Almost 35 years later, the bullets are still felt. Lamport is legally blind and a paraplegic. Michael, a business owner in Australia, walks with a limp. And Mark lives in heaven, where she frequently talks to him, Lamport said.

Life magazine called the Tower shooting the "the worst mass murder by one person in the history of the United States." But that title has been passed to other killers, including Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

McVeigh's execution won't end the pain. There's no single act of public healing for the murders in Austin or Oklahoma City, just solitary struggles.

"We all have to bear it in our own way. And no two people are alike," Lamport said.

The numbers of the dead in Oklahoma City are more staggering than they were in Austin, when the Drag became a shooting gallery. The unimaginable in 1966 has become reality many times since then. And so has the public appetite for violence and death, whether it's vengeance or voyeurism.

"If they had executed Whitman, would I have wanted to see it? No, I wouldn't have wanted to see him executed. I hope I would have just prayed for his soul. Had he gone in another way, it wouldn't have erased what he'd already done," she said.

Whitman was killed by Austin police at the Tower. Monday, hundreds of survivors and relatives of Oklahoma City's victims watched McVeigh die via closed circuit TV. Only a fourth of his victims chose to watch. Still, it was a milestone of public and private grief.

Lamport listened to the news coverage of the execution from her residence in San Antonio.

"I can only relate to the grief that the poor parents and survivors had to go through," Lamport said, adding that her experience was different from that of residents of Oklahoma City.

She never experienced the public terror that gripped Austin, the state and the nation over Whitman's violence because she was in intensive care recovering from her injuries for a long time. Aside from her son, she has talked to only one other victim from that day, the mother of Alex Rodriguez, who was delivering newspapers at UT when he was wounded.

Once Lamport asked her son if he was bitter. "He said, 'Sometimes I could hit somebody really hard,'" she said.
Some emotions don't end, but occasionally the feelings pause long enough to be bearable.

Lamport has made a point of having a wonderful life in spite of Whitman by following "God's plan, " she said. And that's how she has survived.

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