A Whitman Sampler
After thirty years, Texas can’t forget the second most famous sniper in history.
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LAST FALL, MY NIECE SARAH WAS WALKING to class near the University of Texas Tower when she heard a series of shots. Startled, she glanced at the 28-story structure looming above her. Instinctively, she ducked. She was relieved to discover that a maintenance man was firing blanks to frighten away grackles, but for a moment she thought exactly what the rest of us would have. At nineteen, she is too young to know anything about Charles Whitman other than what she has heard and read; still, she knows enough.
This summer marks thirty years since the young ex-Marine sprayed a deadly rain of bullets on the UT-Austin campus, killing 10 and injuring 34. Yet while time has smoothed over the physical evidence of what he did on that hot August day—except for a few pockmarks in the Tower’s tan limestone and a bullet-gouged balustrade just below the statue of Jefferson Davis on the South Mall—it lives on in the public memory. He isn’t the most famous mass murderer in American history; he’s not even the most famous sniper in Texas history. We’ve endured many mad acts in the years since, most recently George Hennard’s assault on the Luby’s cafeteria in Killeen. But our fascination with Whitman hasn’t waned.
Nowhere is this more true than at UT. “The university wishes the whole thing would go away,” said Captain Silas Griggs of the UT police department, though he knows as well as anyone that it will not. All summer long, he has accompanied reporters (including me) on obligatory anniversary trips to the Tower’s observation deck. “I don’t like coming up here,” he said as he unlocked the steel door. “People died here.”
The observation deck has long been off limits to anyone without a police escort. According to the registration book on a table in the Tower’s reception area—the same little room where Whitman bludgeoned and shot receptionist Edna Townsley—members of the German American Chamber of Commerce were among those who received special permission to visit recently, as were nearly one hundred members of the UT graduating class of 1946, as was talk show host Regis Philbin) at least his name was listed). Most people think the public is barred because of Whitman, but that’s just a myth. The real reason is suicide: Since the tower opened in 1937, seven people have taken their lives by leaping from the top of the building. No one has jumped since the UT regents permanently closed the observation deck in January 1975, more than eight years after Whitman’s rampage.
Student organizations occasionally call for the Tower to be reopened—this spring 3,200 students signed a petition—but UT officials haven’t budged. Some years ago, the regents considered enclosing the observation deck in Plexiglas to prevent suicides, but they ultimately decided it was impractical. For now, curiosity seekers will have to make do with “Scenes from the Top,” a virtual campus tour available through UT’s World Wide Web page, which features views from all sides of the observation deck.
The legacy of Whitman’s shooting spree can be felt in other ways. Before Whitman, UT had only security guards who mainly handled traffic problems; after Whitman and the social unrest of the sixties, they became police officers licensed to carry guns. Even today, the Whitman incident is used as a training exercise at UT’s police academy—“Policy number 53, barricade and hostage operations”—though the first post-Whitman homicide on UT-Austin property (a murder-suicide in a married-student housing complex) occurred only this year.
Because of Whitman, police SWAT teams now sit at the ready in cities around the country. If a sniper climbed to the top of the Tower today, three specially trained squads would be available locally: one from the Austin Police Department, one from the Texas Department of Public Safety, and one from the Travis County Sheriff’s Department. But in 1966, there were no SWAT teams. It’s hard to imagine police officers today issuing AM radio calls for hunters armed with high-powered deer rifles to converge on the campus, but Austin officers in 1966 didn’t have high-powered rifles. Nor did they have any sophisticated communication equipment.
“This we pre-911,” observes DPS spokesman Mike Cox. When Austin police officer Ramiro Martinez got to the Tower and tried to contact police headquarters, he had to use a regular phone—and he got a busy signal.
Today, of course, the police would know instantaneously about Whitman; the whole world would, thanks to CNN. And after he was subdued, there would be a spate of quickie books, as there recently were with Waco and Okalahoma City. Yet no book as been written exploring the Whitman story in detail—until now. Next year, the University of North Texas will publish Austinite Gary Lavergne’s A Tower to Climb: The Charles Whitman Murders, a fact-filled if overly workmanlike tome.
The Lavergne book will join several other attempts by pop culture to make sense of Whitman. There are the movies, from The Deadly Tower (1975)—a made-for-TV mess that starred Kurt Russell as Whitman and the Louisiana capitol as the Tower, since UT officials refused to allow the production on campus—to The Delicate Art of the Rifle (1996), an idiosyncratic independent film whose director, D.W. Harper, came to Austin for a screening and was shot in the leg by a sniper with a pellet gun as he walked near campus. There is the music: The Mexican corridos celebrating Officer Martinez’s bravery, Harry Chapin’s “Sniper,” and Kinky Friedman’s “The Ballad of Charles Whitman” (“There was a rumor about a tumor/Nestled at the base of his brain”). Now, inevitably, there is a Web page. Designed by someone named Gregory S. Combs, “Charles Whitman’s Day” has entries from Whitman’s diary, a summary of what happened, and a map of who was shot where.
Perhaps the most telling way the Whitman incident is being kept alive is a new course that will be offered on the UT campus this fall. In “The UT Tower and Public Memory,” professor of rhetoric and composition Rosa Eberly will explore the ways that memory of a traumatic event develops among individuals, institutions, and the media. Eberly, who is 33, has been at UT for only two years, but she has devoted a great deal of thought to the lingering effects of an event that occurred just outside her office window. “Something has not healed here,” she says, “even after thirty years.” Not surprisingly, the class was fully enrolled well before the semester began.