Remembering those lost on UT’s darkest day
On Aug. 1, 1966, a troubled young University of Texas student committed one of the most horrific acts of public violence in our country’s history. Over five decades, this tragedy that claimed the lives of 17 people and forever altered countless more has been remembered primarily through one particular lens—that of the perpetrator, Charles Whitman. We know all about Whitman: He was a veteran, a sniper, he was married, he lived in the Goodall Wooten, his rampage atop the Tower lasted 96 minutes. Fifty years later, we still speculate about him. What about his brain tumor? Could more have been done to prevent it? Why did he do it?
We haven’t learned those answers, and I’m willing to bet we never will. Doesn’t matter. What that obsession with Whitman and his motivations has done is to push aside things we do know and should remember. Aug. 1, 1966, happened 17 years before I was born, and yet I know Whitman’s name. Who were the people killed? Before writing this, I couldn’t tell you one name. On this anniversary, we should choose a different lens for our collective memory of that day, one that focuses on the victims, the survivors, and the heroes.
When I arrived on campus in 2001, the Tower observation deck had just recently been reopened. For 40 years, no one but the birds, the bell carilloneur, and the occasional maintenance worker went up there. The day before my first class, at Gone to Texas, then-provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson offered a free private Tower tour to the first 10 people who emailed him the definition of “provost.” I sprinted to my dorm room (there were no smartphones yet) and fired off my email, and soon I learned that I had won a ticket. I can still remember riding up the elevator to the 27th floor, then up another flight of stairs to the observation deck. I marveled at the view; I also noticed bullet holes in the limestone beneath the clock face.
A couple of years later, I became a Tower tour guide, and it was then that I learned about Whitman. As guides, we had a practiced script we delivered each time we hosted a tour. It was filled with facts about the architect, Paul Cret. There were details of how and when the building was built—it was a WPA project completed in 1937. We told a joke about how the structure itself is 4 feet shorter than the Capitol dome but it’s on a hill that’s 6 feet taller. But we did not say anything about Aug. 1, 1966. When we finished our spiel, invariably someone would ask us: What about the Whitman massacre?
This August, the university will quietly install a memorial to the victims of that terrible crime. Their names have been chiseled into a stone pillar that will rest in the Tower’s shadow, near the Turtle Pond. This memorial has been a long time coming. That it has taken this long is a testament to how devastating and terrifying the day was. It was so traumatic that even the university’s many administrations over five decades have rarely spoken directly about it. Even now, the university is reluctant to emphasize the 50th anniversary, in part because Aug. 1 is also the day that SB 11, the campus-carry bill, goes into effect.
There will be all kinds of reporting in the news media observing the 50th anniversary of the event. For us, we are choosing to remember those who were lost, and we invite you to do the same. These are their names.
Thomas Aquinas Ashton
Dr. Robert H. Boyer
Thomas Frederick Eckman
Mark Jerome Gabour
Karen Joan Griffith
Thomas Ray Karr
Marguerite Gabour Lamport
Roy Dell Schmidt
Paul Bolton Sonntag
Officer Billy Paul Speed
Edna Elizabeth Rose Townsley
Kathleen Leissner Whitman
Margaret Hodges Whitman
Baby Boy Wilson
Photo: The flag flies at half-staff near the University of Texas Tower, Aug. 2, 1966 in Austin, after a shooting spree by a sniper killed 12 people on the campus; AP Photo
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