Sunday, July 31, 2016

August 1, 2016 Marks the 50th Anniversary of the Shootings at the University of Texas

I wrote about the tower shootings on the 46th anniversary of the event, and I talked a bit about what the tower means to those of us who live in Austin, the students and alumni and those of us who work in the shadow of the UT Tower.

Monday, August 1st marks the 50th Anniversary of the tragedy on the UT Campus.  With time and distance, UT has learned to talk about the day, quite unlike in the era when I was a student at UT (1993-1998).  There has been one dedication ceremony of the Memorial Garden which sits south of the Main Building (alumni will remember it as the Turtle Pond), and tomorrow will see a re-dedication ceremony.

A documentary on the event, Tower, has been winning acclaim far and wide.  I've heard from those who've seen it that it's excellent, and I keep missing opportunities to see it myself.  The film focuses less on the means and motives of the shooter, and, instead, on the people caught in the crossfire, using a wide array of modern technologies to recreate the day with respect and immediacy.  Here's to broad release soon.

The Austin American Statesman has put up an excellent site with interviews of witnesses, timelines, etc...

From Wikipedia:

Familicide murders
  • Margaret Whitman, 43, mother of Charles Whitman, was killed by bludgeoning and stab wounds.
  • Kathy Whitman, 23, wife of Charles Whitman, was killed by stab wounds to the chest.

Killed inside tower
  • Edna Townsley, 51, was bludgeoned and shot to death by Whitman in the tower reception area.
  • Marguerite Lamport, 56, was killed by a shotgun wound to the chest.
  • Mark Gabour, 16, was killed by a shotgun wound to the head.

Shot from observation deck
  • Claire Wilson, 18, lost the baby she was carrying after being shot through the abdomen.
  • Thomas Eckman, 18, was shot in the shoulder while kneeling over Claire Wilson.
  • Dr. Robert Boyer, 33, a physics professor, was killed by a single shot to the lower back.
  • Thomas Ashton, 22, a Peace Corps trainee, was killed by a gunshot to the upper left chest
  • Thomas Karr, 24, a university senior, was killed by a single shot through the spine.
  • Billy Speed, 23, a police officer, was killed by a shot to his shoulder which traveled into his chest.
  • Harry Walchuk, 38, a doctoral student, was killed by a single shot to the chest.
  • Paul Sonntag, 18, was shot through the mouth while hiding behind construction barriers.
  • Claudia Rutt, 18, fiancĂ©e of Sonntag, was killed by a gunshot to the chest.
  • Roy Schmidt, 29, an electrician, was killed by a single shot to the abdomen.

Died later of injuries
  • Karen Griffith, 17, was wounded by a gunshot through the lung.[85] She died seven days after the shooting.
  • David Gunby, 58, was shot in the lower back.[86] He died of his wounds in 2001; the coroner ruled his death a homicide.[79]


It's deeply important to remember those who we lost and those who were injured.  I want to put a face on the victims as people more than I want to remember their murderer.  Tomorrow, we'll be thinking of those who we lost and those who suffered.

When I attended UT in the 90's, the only real memory of the event was word-of-mouth stories students would tell each other.  One social group on campus included in their initiation a memorization of where one can find bullet damage around the tower.  Rules on campus reflected the no-nonsense approach to stopping a repeat of the event, such as no possession of any type of firearm or toy firearm.

I knew of one student who was severely disciplined (possibly kicked out of the dorms, but memory fails) for firing a BB-gun down the hallway, and a group of my fellow Film 1 students were held by UT police for staging a mock bank robbery for one of their projects thanks to their use of toy guns.  Hence, we had a policy instated in the class that no future films could have a gun appear in frame.  We all took it in stride and as a creative challenge.

Yes, it is also true that tomorrow will also be the first day that new state laws go into effect and guns will be allowed on campus as concealed weapons.  The irony escapes exactly no one, and we're dealing with it constructively.

The tower was closed to public access when I was a student, but access wasn't reduced due to the events of fifty years ago and fear of another sniper, but rather because the building went from use as a library to an office space, and, reportedly, more than one student used the unlocked windows of the 20-odd story structure to slip off this mortal coil (the windows still open at my own last check.  I snuck up to the top floors a few times a couple of years back.)*

Around 2001, the tower observation deck re-opened to the public in ticketed, guided tours.  There's a plexiglass wall rising us to protect both those above and below.  I've never been on a tour, but circa 2001, I went up to the observation deck with a video crew to capture footage for a publicity video we were shooting for the College of Engineering.  And, of course, we lingered.  There's no other view like it in Austin.  Last I checked, however, tours are now limited to special tour groups and tickets on the weekend.

Even though I grew up in Austin, on and off, and attended UT, the event was more or less an abstraction until sometime around 2000.  At that time I learned I worked for one of the survivors of the massacre, a gentleman who went on to teach at UT, act as an administrator with the College of Engineering and, prior to his retirement, was working in Main as a top-level administrator.  I know how personally he took the event, and that he was not keen to talk about it or share.  Just seeing his expression change when someone else brought up the event was enough to make the day very, very real.

I'm not sure what I'll do tomorrow.  The first dedication ceremony of the Memorial Garden was a closed affair.  I continue to think of it as a somewhat private event for the victims, their families and the survivors.  We'll see.  But I do want to take a moment to remember what happened, and acknowledge that we remember all these years later.

Edit:  Brief photo set from the August 1 Memorial Service

*I highly encourage you to read the letter penned by our own JimD back in 1998 to then UT President Larry Faulkner on the topic of re-opening the tower.

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