Whitman's father copes by suppressing memories

This story originally was published on Aug. 4, 1996.

He's an old man now with a touch of Alzheimer's. His short-term memory comes and goes.

But some memories are never lost: The death of three children -- two violently, one with AIDS. The murder of his wife.

And one searing event branded in his soul forever, stamped upon the psyche of countless Americans, and part of the violent saga of our time.

Thirty years ago Thursday, his son and namesake, Charles Whitman, went berserk.

The Eagle Scout, ex-Marine and graduate student first killed his wife and then his mother.

He went on that day to climb the University of Texas Tower with an arsenal of weapons and terrorize the surrounding area. He killed 14 more people and wounded 31 before being gunned down by police at age 25.

In the 30 years since that day, such mayhem has become much more a part of the American consciousness. But in 1966, mass murder was a relatively fresh expression of private rage gone public.

An accident

Charles Whitman, the father, calls it an accident. It is a way, perhaps, of coming to terms with the emotional trauma of the slaughter.

The energy to plumb the depths of his son's act is gone. And the urge to explore conflicting emotions within the troubled family might never have been great. He goes on with his life.

But the dreams continue, he said, of things that happened to his son Charles over the years. And the nightmares that wake him up in the night are the same.

"I am always looking for answers. I don't know why in hell all this happened. But it did, so you accept it," said Whitman, 78, a plumbing contractor.

He has no defense from his night visitors but, awake, he holds back the storm of memories by sheer determination and self-inflicted silence.

People rarely bother him now about the shooting. For years, he said, his friends asked how he was doing. No one was cruel, he said, and he tried not to mention it.

"I've known Charlie for more than 20 years, and we've never talked about it," said Monte Crosby, chief plumbing inspector of Palm Beach County.

Whitman is a private man. He has shunned interviews for years. Some stories have said that he demanded to be paid for interviews -- but there was no suggestion of that last week.

He lives alone in a rambling, cluttered home on five acres in Lantana, a small city adjacent to West Palm Beach in South Florida. He is amicably separated from his third wife, Betty, after more than 25 years of marriage. His second marriage lasted less than a week, he said.

He does plumbing work just for friends now, but his bedroom is lined with desks piled high with files and the familiar debris of 53 years in Lake Worth and Lantana.

Pictures of grandchildren stand on any litter-free space and hang from the walls. He has three or four; the exact figure escapes him. He couldn't find a photograph of Charlie. "I know there's one around here somewhere. I have lots of albums," he said.

'Not my son'

Part of his 60-gun collection is mounted on the bedroom walls -- he has rifles, pistols, even two machine guns. The authorities know about them, he said. Guns have been important to him. He frequently took his boys hunting.

But a love of guns does not explain the rage that exploded on that August day in Texas. Whitman is convinced the killer was a different person.

"He had a tumor on the brain. What happened there was not my son. He was my son by birth, but not my son. He was a sick young man," Whitman said.

They knew he was not well. His daughter-in-law, Kathleen, called them often from Texas. Charles was beating his head against the bathroom wall, Whitman said.

His wife went to Austin to try to help.

"I didn't want her to go. I was concerned about what might happen. He'd have killed me too, if I'd went there. We were both bull- headed. He wouldn't listen to a damn thing," he said.

Whitman spent the anniversary of the massacre visiting his ailing father-in-law in a nearby nursing home and shuffling some papers.

The next day he visited the grave in West Palm Beach where Charles and his mother, Margaret, are buried next to another son, John.

John was shot at age 24 in a bar called Big Daddies in Lake Worth in 1973. The third son -- Patrick, also a plumber -- is buried in Lake Worth. He died in California of AIDS complications.

The father knelt at the grave of the UT Tower gunman.

"I don't like being here. But if anything we do today helps someone, I feel I'm doing what's right," he said.

Doing what's right has been important to this forlorn father who grew up in an orphanage.

Abandoned by his father when he was 6, his mother placed him and his two brothers in the Bethesda home for boys in Savanna, Ga. He was there for nine years. The orphanage taught him how to be a parent. They were strict, and what his elders told him there was right, he said.

He tried to pass that along to his kids. He admits using a fly swatter on their back sides from time to time, but denies that he was cruel. Some reports have accused him of hitting his wives, but he brushes that aside.

"Some people say I was a strict parent. I don't agree. I wanted to teach my kids right from wrong. We had our ups and downs, but we tried to work them out. I think we did."

And if today, he could say a word to his son, the Eagle Scout gone mad, the killer of 16 people, he would speak softly and briefly:

"I love you. That's it."

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