Survivors of UT Tower attack cope with bullet scars, grim memories

Even 50 years later, the sight of the University of Texas Tower still casts Forrest Preece back to Aug. 1, 1966, when he saw a sniper’s bullet kill a man who was standing near him on Guadalupe Street.

On that day, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the Tower and rained down bullets on the campus for more than an hour and a half in a rampage that killed 14 people and wounded nearly three dozen others.

“Until the day I die, I look at the UT Tower and think of him shooting people,” said Preece, who was a 20-year-old junior then. “It’s a symbol of that whole day. I wish I could get rid of that.”

As the sniper’s attack continued for more than 90 minutes, in part because of a disorganized police response, civilians who happened to be in the area became much more than bystanders. They risked their lives to pull those who had been shot to safety, and they offered their private cars as makeshift ambulances to drive people to the hospital. Some even ran home and grabbed their deer rifles to fire back at the shooter.

Fifty years later, that day still sticks with them.

Some became advocates for gun control or pushed for a memorial at UT for those who lost their lives in the shooting. Others developed the nervous habit of always scouting the rooms they walked into, looking for suspicious activities and the nearest exits.

Still others kept their memories bottled up for years, speaking about the incident rarely if at all. And, every so often, a new mass shooting brings it all back.

“It’s like pulling up a memory card from yesterday,” said Clif Drummond, UT’s 1966-67 student body president who, with his friend Bob Higley, helped load wounded people into cars that would take them to the hospital. “I can describe the color the light was because we’d been through a seminal thing. We knew it was unprecedented, and everything that happened was pretty firmly implanted in our minds.”

Unavoidable Aug. 1

For many years, Alfred McAlister, a freshman in the summer of 1966, had no interest in talking about the shooting. On that day, he became trapped behind a car after running across Guadalupe Street to help a man who had been shot. But when he reached him, McAlister said, the man didn’t even have a pulse.

“At that instant, I fully became aware that this was fully real, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up because I was exposed,” he said.

He doesn’t know how long he ducked there, behind the car, a few feet away from the dead man, but when a police officer came to help retrieve the body, McAlister ran for better cover on the officer’s orders.

Later he would learn that his Austin High School classmate and former swim teammate Paul Bolton Sonntag was among the dead, and he cried on his drive home. But McAlister said he rarely discussed the shooting until recently, as filmmaker Keith Maitland began work on a documentary on the subject.

“We sort of repressed it,” said McAlister, who now teaches at UT. “Many of us can effortlessly, with very little psychic cost, just take things and put them in another mental box. We just don’t visit that place in our mind.”

Higley, who drew fire while trying to cross Guadalupe Street to help Sonntag, also kept the memories at a distance for a long time.

“For years, I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” he said. “I’d get to Aug. 1, and I’d get very withdrawn and angry.”

But reminders are unavoidable, like the anonymous phone call he received at his office one year sometime around Aug. 1.

“A quiet voice on the phone asked how I was doing. … She said, ‘I know where you were 30 years ago, and I know how you’re feeling,’” Higley recalled. “She said, ‘I just want to let you know you did a wonderful thing that day.’”

Higley asked for her name, but she wouldn’t tell him, and said that he would never hear from her again. And he hasn’t, but the incident sparked his interest in revisiting the events of that day.

When Pam Colloff wrote a story to commemorate the shooting’s 40th anniversary in Texas Monthly, Higley agreed to be interviewed.

His old friend Drummond said he sees some of the impacts of that day in his own life.

“It did change my perception of whenever I’m out in a public place. It’s a situational awareness. I look to see what’s going on and where the exits are if need be, and then I go on,” Drummond said. “It’s not to the point of it being debilitating, but I’m conscious of it. I kind of check things out.”

And recently, the lifelong film lover has found that he no longer enjoys going to movie theaters.

“There have been other incidents that did occur in theaters, and that’s not a place with easy escape,” Drummond said. “I used to go no less than once or twice a week. Now, I’ve learned to download and get my cinema in a different way.”

Drawn to a cause

While many survivors have carried the emotional and psychological wounds of that day throughout their lives, Sandra Wilson has carried actual wounds.

On Aug. 1, 1966, she was hurrying down Guadalupe Street on her way to meet a friend for lunch when she was suddenly knocked down. She fell to the ground and felt like she was paralyzed. Soon, people were falling to the ground all around her.

It was a “very weird, very strange thing,” she said. “I didn’t even think shootings. I didn’t think anyone would be in the Tower. … I really got in my mind that it’s something from outer space.”

Whitman’s bullet ripped through Wilson’s arm and into her side, pierced her lung and scraped her spinal cord. She screamed for someone to call the police and was eventually saved. She spent a week in intensive care. Her lung eventually healed, but the back pain continued for many years after the shooting, she said.

Surviving that day made Wilson, already a pacifist, an outspoken gun critic.

She’s advocated for gun control at the Legislature and spoke against the campus carry gun legislation that is scheduled to go into effect next month on the 50th anniversary of the shooting.

Not all the survivors are opposed to guns, however, and some credit the people who fired back at Whitman with preventing the loss of more lives.

“The death toll, while horrible, would have been much higher had it not been for the riflemen” and the people who helped others get to safety, Drummond said. “That shooter could have gotten away with a lot more than he did had people not operated smartly.”

Some survivors like Preece, Drummond, McAlister and Claire Wilson James — who was eight months pregnant when Whitman shot her from the tower, killing the fetus — have spent decades advocating for a memorial that would fittingly commemorate those who died.

This August, they will finally get their wish when a 6-foot-tall granite boulder with the names of the victims etched onto its face will be placed at the Tower Garden to replace the small plaque currently there.

“The only thing I’ve been an activist about is this memorial,” Preece said. “I just felt there needed to be a concrete, substantial memorial that lists the name of the victims. I’m glad it’s finally getting done.”

‘Tinge of sadness’

Even so many years later, a proud alumnus like Preece, who has endowed scholarships at the university and often visits the campus, can’t separate the shooting from the happy memories he made during his time as a UT student.

“I do think about the whole thing quite often, probably every day,” Preece said. “I love UT. I love almost all my memories from being in the Longhorn Band and working at The Daily Texan. But this puts a tinge of sadness to it all.”

Drummond sometimes feels that sadness too, but he said he has been able to move past it.

“It was my first brush with evil. I wish fervently that it had not happened, as does everyone, but it did,” he said. “But my life does not revolve around that, and that takes a little bit of conscious decision making. … I don’t run from it, I don’t hide from it or suppress it, but it’s not the central point.”

Higley never uses the shooter’s name and chooses instead to focus on the reaction of the university community, which banded together in a moment of terror.

“That, to me, is the message of the day. It has nothing to do with the shooter in the Tower. We should declare victory over what happened and what the shooter tried to bring to us. We responded properly, and that’s who defined it, not the shooter,” he said. “Thousands of students came together, and they acted wisely. They acted right. … On that day we were par excellence, and I don’t want the shooter to get any part of the stage.”

American-Statesman video journalist Reshma Kirpalani contributed to this report.

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