UT Tower shootings: The forgetting Aug. 1, 1966


This story originally was published on August 1, 2006.

Forty years ago today a 25-year-old man with a blond crew cut stood high above Austin and forever embedded himself in the history of one of the most prominent elements of the city's skyline — the University of Texas Tower.

Now, a generation has passed. Few of the tens of thousands of UT students give much thought to the fact they are the same ages as the majority of the people Charles Whitman shot from the Tower's observation deck on Aug. 1, 1966. The campus death toll was 13 murdered and 31 wounded — at the time, the biggest mass murder in modern U.S. history.

But for many, the extent of their knowledge of what happened four decades ago is sketchy at best: "A guy went to the top of the Tower and shot a bunch of people," they say. Matter of fact. As if it happens every day.

"It's kind of like gossip here," says Jieni Li, a 20-year-old UT student from Houston. "When you're a freshman and you walk by the Tower for the first time, it's kind of tradition that someone will tell you."

The story of that bloody day is passed through campus like a decades-long game of telephone: Did you hear? Did you know? If anything, the references to Whitman in popular culture have increased, not diminished, over time. And the Internet has breathed new life into the legend. There's a Charles Whitman profile on the social networking Web site Myspace.com; Wikipedia hosts a long entry on the Whitman murders; the stereotype of a man with a gun in a tower has been depicted in movies (briefly in "Parenthood, " a 1989 Steve Martin comedy) and television shows ("The Simpsons," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "King of the Hill"). The 1975 made-for-TV movie "The Deadly Tower, " starring Kurt Russell as Whitman, occasionally pops up for sale on eBay.

"They mention Whitman in the movie 'Natural Born Killers,'" said Mike Stafford, a 33-year-old UT student from Austin. "That's probably the first I remember hearing about him and what he did."

Until nine years ago, no book had been written as a complete history of the Whitman murders. There are some television documentaries. They usually air about this time every 10 years.

There is no memorial, although the university says it is working to change that. It's not a part of campus tours or even Tower tours. But if you ask, the student tour guides will point out the spot in the limestone wall where the bullet that killed Whitman supposedly lodged.

That's not true: Whitman was felled by shotgun blasts, not a bullet. But it's part of the folklore that endures in the absence of any formal way to learn about what really happened that day and its effect on the university community.

Wanting to forget

In the weeks, months and years after the Tower shootings, there was a strong, collective urge to move on. The tragedy was a terrible blow to the image of a university that had dreams of becoming the Harvard of the South. Both students and the administration did not want to let one man ruin what they felt had been a positive symbol of the school in the years prior to Whitman.

Perhaps that's why there has been little more than quiet acknowledgement of those who died or were wounded by Whitman.

Flags went to half-staff the day after the shootings and have been lowered every Aug. 1, but there is no formal announcement of the reason. There was one major memorial service, held at University Baptist Church in 1996, the 30th anniversary. That day the Tower bells rang 16 times, once for each of Whitman's victims, including the unborn child of wounded student Claire Wilson, and Whitman's mother and wife, whom he killed before heading to the Tower. Only once, in 1999, the Tower was darkened in memory of Whitman's victims.

"UT did the same thing a lot of communities do after tragedy," said James Pennebaker, a UT psychology professor. "They do everything they can to not think about it, to not commemorate it, to think about the future and not the past and to dismiss it as something that was an aberration.

"It's not until the next generation comes along that has enough psychological distance to say, 'This is an important part of the psychological history of the university that we need to commemorate it.'"

"Memory depends on generations, and generations pass away," said Rosa Eberly, a former assistant English professor at UT who taught a class in the late 1990s that focused on how people thought about the Tower through the years. The class created a now-defunct Web site as an online memorial. "Some people say the university was depending on the knowledge of this to pass (away) through generations."

Not until the 30th anniversary of the shootings approached was there any official discussion of a campus memorial to the victims. At the time, people worried an effort to memorialize the victims would feel like a depressing gravestone or a shrine to Whitman.

"I don't think there was ever any intent of the institution not wanting to remember all the victims, " said Shirley Bird Perry, who was on campus on Aug. 1, 1966 and is now senior vice president at UT. "But as far as a physical place, there was probably a little denial."

In 1999, former UT President Larry Faulkner officially dedicated the "Tower Garden" — an algae-ridden turtle pond between the old botany building and the Tower — as a future spot for a memorial. But UT, which collects $18 million annually through the Longhorn Foundation for its athletic programs, failed to raise the estimated $800,000 to revamp the garden area.

In a new effort to raise money for a memorial, the university launched a Web site in May that allows people to buy e-Tributes, online Web pages honoring loved ones, starting at $100. The money earned from e-Tributes (only visible at www.utexas. edu/etribute) will go toward the eventual update of the Tower Garden, Perry said.
The lure of the Tower

The Tower deck, where Whitman was perched for 96 minutes during his killing spree, long remained a forbidden place on campus. Before Whitman, the observation deck was open to the public. In 1974, the deck was closed after several suicides. It remained off limits for 25 years.

"If you were an undergrad in the late '90s, the Tower had been closed off before you were born," said Jim Dedman, a 1998 graduate and former associate editor of The Daily Texan, UT's student newspaper. "You'd see it every day and you'd hear all the rumors and stories, but you couldn't go up there."

In 1999, Faulkner worked with students on a plan to reopen the Tower deck following safety modifications including a fencelike structure to prevent people from falling or jumping from the Tower and the addition of metal detectors and police guards.

"It fundamentally wasn't healthy to have people always talking about that moment in history (the Whitman shootings) whenever they were around the Tower," Faulkner said in a recent interview. "I just felt the university community needed to get past having that as a main topic of conversation and I didn't think it would be possible unless people reopened the observation deck and took away the forbiddance."

Today, Tower tours are offered several times a day and are led by student guides. Charles Locke, Tower tour coordinator, said the campus landmark is popular among tourists, but adds, "This tour is not the Charles Whitman tour and it's not going to be the Whitman tour." Still, he says he encourages guides to be knowledgeable about the shootings because the topic comes up.

"Every time I've worked a tour, there has been a Charles Whitman question, " said Cassie Williams, a 20-year-old tour guide from Plano. "The number one question I'm asked is, 'Where are the bullet holes?' We'll show them if they ask."

And ask they do.

On a recent Saturday afternoon tour, 40-year-old Cindy Knapp was visiting from Houston when she pulled Williams aside.

"I came to learn about Charles Whitman, " she said. "I want to see the bullet holes. I'm surprised I'm the only one asking."

Not able to forget

For hundreds, maybe thousands of people who were near the Tower that day, there's no need to ask.
Many were not much more than kids then. Crossing campus in the noontime heat between summer classes, going to lunch, sitting in the shade. Wearing white cotton T-shirts and blue jeans, or summer dresses with hair teased and flipped.

Forrest Preece, 20 at the time, was paying for burgers and Cokes at a drug store on Guadalupe Street at about 11:55 a.m. when the cashier warned him and his lunch buddies: "You boys better not go out there; somebody's shooting a gun."

"We said, 'Yeah right,'" Preece recently recalled. "This was way before Columbine or anything else like that, before people started 'going postal' as the terminology is now." David Orton, an apprentice embalmer and funeral director for Cook (now Cook-Walden) Funeral Home, was a week shy of his 23rd birthday when he stopped into work on his day off to pick up a paycheck and heard of the sniper in the Tower. He jumped into an ambulance in the garage of the funeral home and sped to 19th Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) where a police officer hiding beneath a tree flagged him down and directed him to the bodies.

"There was a really bad communication problem that day. Nobody had two-way radios, of course, nobody had cell phones, and there was a big problem of trying to get everybody to where they were supposed to be to pick people up who had been shot."

The first person Orton took to Brackenridge Hospital was police officer Billy Speed, 22, who was killed by Whitman's bullet while running past the Jefferson Davis statue that stands at the southwest corner of the mall. When Orton returned to the funeral home at the end of the day, it was his job to embalm Whitman.

James Ayres was a young English professor, 33, teaching a class in what's now called Parlin Hall, facing the South Mall. When another professor came in to warn someone was shooting from the Tower, the students all ran to the windows.

"The first thing that occurs to you in something like this," Ayres said, "is it's just not believable. Completely unbelievable."

Every once in a while a student will ask him about the shootings.

"Not very often anymore," he said. "The current students don't really know about it or aren't really curious about it. It seems like when Aug. 1 turns, I seem to remember the day and I thought about it a lot when the university opened the observation deck. It made me nervous."

There was a time when many, if not most people in Austin, associated the Tower with its darkest day. With every year that goes by, fewer do. But the Tower has an iconic power that's hard to ignore.

"At the time it was just another day," said Orton, now 62. "But it made me aware. If I look at the Tower, I remember.

"It still puts a little fear in me. People look at the Tower when it's lit burnt orange and think of victory; I look at the Tower and I think of Whitman up there."

When the Tower reopened, a fence was built around the observation deck to prevent suicides. Jackson Cox, 16, below, takes in the view by snapping a photo with his cell phone.


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