The rituals that follow a mass shooting are now all too familiar: candlelight vigils, memorial services, speeches, and 24/7 media coverage.
This was not the case on Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman took a rifle to the top of the University of Texas Tower and started shooting. He killed 17 people and injured 32 others in the nation’s first mass murder on a college campus. In the days, months, and years that followed, the university did little to commemorate the tragedy, save for a small garden dedicated in 1999 and a plaque installed eight years later.
On Monday—the 50th anniversary of the shooting and the same day that the controversial campus carry law took effect—several hundred people gathered for a memorial service and the unveiling of a new monument engraved with the names of the victims.
The crowd gathered on the Main Mall, where trumpeters played taps and flags were lowered to half-staff. At 11:48, the time the shooting began, the Tower clock was stopped for 24 hours. Bagpipers led a solemn procession to the Tower Garden, where UT president Greg Fenves was the first to speak. He acknowledged that the memorial was long overdue.
“Fifty years ago, society responded to violent tragedy differently,” Fenves said. “Healing was thought to occur when we moved on. Survivors did not receive the support that they needed. The campus did not fully grieve before trying to return to normal. In the ensuing decades, there was an instinct to try to shield the university by not associating it with a singular crime. To try to not allow tragedy to define the Tower … My hope today is that with the memorial we dedicate, we remember the good, the innocent, and the heroic.”
Survivor Claire Wilson, who lost her unborn son and her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, in the shooting, drew a standing ovation as she walked to the podium.
“I ask you to join me in making a vow,” Wilson said. “To treasure the ones we walk with right now, each moment. Let this memorial remain here on this campus and in our minds as a reminder of the power that we have in each moment to become a community of love and reverence for life.”
U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, BBA ’67, JD ’70, Life Member, who was student body president at the time of the shooting, said he was outside the business school when the shooting began.
“Because I was walking south instead of west or north, I went unscathed,” Doggett said. “This massacre, we need to remember, occurred before terms like gun violence or mass shooting were a part of our regular vocabulary. It was as unprecedented as a flying saucer.”
None of the speakers mentioned that August 1 also marked the first day that licensed carrying of a concealed handgun is legal on the campus. At the memorial, the only visible signs of that debate were the small gray Texas Gun Sense stickers worn by members of the gun-control advocacy group of the same name. Ed Scruggs, a member of the board of Texas Gun Sense, said he was saddened that the law took effect on the anniversary of the shooting.
“In my mind, it is a travesty that this law is going into effect today,” Scruggs said. “They couldn’t have waited a few more days? That fight is going to continue starting as soon as this event is over, but it’s not going to muddy the memorial.”
Supporters of the campus-carry bill have argued that having licensed carriers around will add an element of protection in the event of a campus shooting.
The ceremony ended with the reading of the names of the victims, with the Tower bells tolling once after each name.
After the ceremony, Annette Martinez, BS ’82, handed out flowers to survivors and their relatives. Her uncle is Ramiro Martinez, one of the police officers who ended the massacre by entering the Tower and firing on Whitman. “Every anniversary we think about how close we came to losing him,” Annette Martinez said.
As the crowd dispersed, Terry Raines, ’67, lingered near the Tower Garden. He recalled watching the shooting unfold from inside the Tower, where he had been delivering mail as a student worker. “I saw one lady dead on the pavement, and then I just stayed in the building,” Raines said. “It’s so important to remember it after all these years.”
UT president Greg Fenves, Tower shooting survivor Claire Wilson, and a bagpiper lead the procession from the Main Mall to the Tower Garden on Monday morning.
Photo by Marsha Miller.
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