UT Tower Tragedy quietly fades into history

This story originally was published on Aug. 2, 2001.

Editor's note: This story was written before the death of David Gunby in late 2001. Gunby, whose death was ruled a homicide by a Tarrant County medical examiner, is now considered Whitman's 16th victim.

The University of Texas Tower shooting that left 15 people dead is an event that few want to remember as part of the university's history. And so the 35th anniversary of the event passed Wednesday without formal acknowledgment by UT and little attention from students, aside from a spread in The Daily Texan.

The university had no memorial ceremonies Wednesday to mark the noon hour when student Charles Whitman began a rampage from the Tower's observation deck. The usual number of visitors dropped by the desk in the student union to inquire about Tower tours. And in the early afternoon the only presence in the Tower garden were several dozen pigeons, a young man smoking a cigarette and a batch of turtles sunning themselves on some rocks.

"It's just another August 1," said University of Texas President Larry Faulkner.

The observation deck was closed in 1974 because of a series of suicides, but Faulkner and student leaders pressed the regents to reopen it and succeeded in 1999.

"I thought that unless people could have a personal experience with (the Tower), it would remain a captive of the past," Faulkner said. "The top of the Tower looks down on some of the most important public possessions of the people of this state. Texans are people with a high degree of self-identity, and I think that the experience at the top of the Tower is an important one for their connection to their heritage."

For that reason, there is no mention of the shooting when visitors ride the elevators 27 floors to the top. Guides, though, are happy to answer questions about the event and show visitors the bulletholes in the limestone.

More than 30,000 visitors have taken that trip since the Tower reopened. Four couples got engaged on the observation deck in the past week.

"It's funny, for all the talk about history at this school and tradition ... very little is actually ever discussed about it," said UT doctoral candidate Scott Truelove, who was walking along the south side of the Tower on Wednesday.

Not far from Truelove's path, a young professor Michael Hall witnessed that moment in history in 1966.

At Garrison Hall's history office, Hall heard shots and walked outside. From beneath the building's archway, he could see a body lying in the sun and a man hiding behind one of the live oaks that still stand on the plaza. Realizing that a shooter was in the Tower, Hall went inside to call the police. In that moment, the man behind the tree dashed from his hiding place -- trying to escape, Hall believes, into Garrison Hall -- and was fatally shot in the back. Whitman, who also had killed his wife and mother earlier that day, was later killed by police.

Settling into his leather reading chair in his office in the Humanities Research Center, Hall said Wednesday he can recall the sequence of events vividly, but does so only when he is asked. Now a professor emeritus, he says the university's handling of the anniversary is just right.

"This university is an enormous, complex community of academic teaching and scholarship," Hall said. "The shooting had nothing to do with its primary focus. It didn't even make a ripple as far as enrollment of students. It did kill 15 people, and it was tragic for those people."

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Featured