Fifty years after the Tower shooting, the University of Texas is finally honoring the victims. What took so long?
You could spend the entire day walking around the University of Texas at Austin and never find any discernible reminder of the most infamous and searing event in the school’s 133-year history. But if you looked—really looked—you might eventually notice a nine-by-fourteen-inch plaque in a tucked-away spot half a block north of the Tower, next to a turtle pond. It says, simply: The University of Texas at Austin remembers with profound sorrow the tragedy of August 1, 1966. This space is dedicated as the Tower Garden, a memorial to those who died, to those who were wounded, and to the countless other victims who were immeasurably affected by the tragedy.
The plaque does not explain what actually happened there; it fails to say that a UT engineering major named Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the Tower with an arsenal of weapons and opened fire on students, professors, and bystanders below. It doesn’t say that he murdered 16 people and wounded 31. It doesn’t say that forty years passed before the plaque was erected.
Only now, five decades later, is the university finally installing a proper memorial to commemorate the victims. On August 1, the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre, a stone monument bearing the victims’ names will at last be unveiled on campus. And on that very same day, the new campus carry law will go into effect. The law reverses a long-standing state statute barring firearms from public-university buildings, and it will allow anyone with a license to carry a handgun nearly anywhere on campus, including classrooms. That this legislation will be enacted fifty years to the day since the state’s deadliest shooting is either sensible or grotesque, depending on whether you believe guns belong on campus. But what is indisputable is that, for all our pride in being a state where firearms are so much a part of our culture, we rarely acknowledge the price that accompanies that right. We fiercely defend the Second Amendment, yet we often overlook the victims of gun violence. At no time will this be more evident than on August 1, when long-neglected survivors of the Tower shooting try to reclaim their place in history.
That the university never adequately commemorated the tragedy is due in no small part to the fact that Whitman’s crime was the first mass school shooting. There were no protocols for publicly mourning such an atrocity, only feelings of confusion, shock, and shame. The UT administration responded by soldiering on as if nothing unusual had taken place. No memorial service was held. In the years, and then decades, that followed, each anniversary passed without comment. Guides who led hour-long tours of the Tower were instructed not to speak of the shooting unless asked. “The university’s stance had always seemed to be to try to erase what had happened, but with absolutely no success,” former UT president Larry Faulkner told me in 2006, when I interviewed him for an oral history about the tragedy. “It was like an injury that would never heal.”
None of this sat well with Forrest Preece, a retired Austin advertising executive, who, as a UT junior, had narrowly missed being struck by one of Whitman’s bullets and, like many students, had later walked across the blood-stained South Mall. “After the massacre, Chancellor Harry Ransom read a prepared statement before the news media; the campus was shut down the next day; and flags flew at half-staff for maybe a week—and that was it,” Preece told me recently. He was dismayed by his alma mater’s decades-long institutional silence, which he believed had only compounded the pain of witnesses, survivors, and victims’ families and was a disservice to those who had died. His feelings intensified in April 2007, when then UT president Bill Powers spoke at a candlelight vigil on the Main Mall to honor the 32 victims of the shooting at Virginia Tech that month. “Certainly Powers’s speech was an appropriate gesture,” Preece told me. “But why did the people murdered on that very spot in 1966 receive no recognition?”
Virginia Tech had shown what was possible when a university faced an atrocity head-on. Its response was radically different from UT’s, largely because it did not carry the burden of being the first school stained by the horror of a mass shooting and because it came about at a time when rituals for mourning such tragedies were already well established. Virginia Tech launched the Office of Recovery and Support, which kept the lines of communication open with victims’ families and survivors, as well as the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, which occupies part of the academic hall where many of the victims had been shot. The school also enhanced the highly visible memorial that students had assembled in the days following the shooting and created a corresponding website that provided extensive biographies of the victims. On each anniversary, there has been—and still is—a campus-wide Day of Remembrance, featuring a memorial service and a moment of silence, and there are community-building activities, like a commemorative 3.2-mile run (one tenth of a mile for each victim), to foster a sense of unity.
It is unlikely that UT will ever embrace the legacy of the Tower shooting in quite the same way, but progress was made two summers ago, when Preece and others who were on campus the day of the attack gathered for the forty-eighth anniversary. The group included an elementary school teacher named Claire Wilson James, who had been eight months pregnant on August 1, 1966, and had lost both her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, and her unborn child in the massacre; Artly Snuff, a performance artist who had carried James to safety; and Alfred McAlister, a professor of public health in UT’s Plan II honors program, and attorney Jim Bryce, who had both seen the carnage. They had come together at the invitation of Austin filmmaker Keith Maitland, who was making a documentary about the shooting. (The film, Tower, is loosely based on the 2006 oral history I wrote, and I served as one of its executive producers.)
Working together, Maitland and nearly two dozen UT students had organized an unofficial observance—a living memorial—that took place that sweltering August morning. As alumni and others whom Maitland had invited looked on, the assembled students made their way around campus, pausing at the sites where victims had been killed. At each long-forgotten crime scene, the students held up a photo of the person who had been struck there and read aloud a statement about his or her life. So moved were Preece, James, Snuff, and Bryce that when McAlister asked who wanted to form an ad hoc committee to advocate for a more significant memorial, they all signed up on the spot. Though Preece, Bryce, and others had individually broached the subject with UT’s administration over the years, they had never been successful on their own. The purpose of the hastily formed group was to serve as “an official voice on behalf of survivors and witnesses,” McAlister said, and to impress upon UT the importance of not letting the fiftieth anniversary pass unacknowledged.
The group began working closely with school administrators, including President Gregory Fenves’s office, and eventually finalized plans for what UT is calling “an upgraded memorial.” Compared with Virginia Tech’s tribute, or the epic monument that Texas A&M constructed to honor the twelve students who were killed in the 1999 Bonfire collapse, it will be a modest affair, but one that the group of survivors and witnesses wholeheartedly supports. The plan calls for a five-foot-tall slab of granite to be placed at the Memorial Garden, positioned so that the Tower can be seen rising up behind it. The names of the victims will be etched onto its polished face. (The project is being financed with private donations.) The university will also hold a ceremony on August 1, at which the victims’ names will be read and Fenves will speak. The program will start shortly before the time that the shooting began in 1966, at 11:48 a.m.* Earlier that morning, flags will be lowered, and at dusk, the Tower will go dark to honor the victims.
The plan represents a significant shift for the university; at several points over the past two years the group of survivors and witnesses was unsure if UT would follow through on its pledge to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary. Complicating matters was the fact that officials in the university’s communications office were skittish about the timing of the ceremony because it coincided with the enactment of campus carry; anticipating protests over the gun law, they initially balked at the idea of having a service for the Tower victims on the same day. It was Clif Drummond, the 1966 student body president, who insisted that the service could not be postponed. “I said, ‘This day has been paid for in blood, in lifelong injuries, in the loss of loved ones, in pain,’ ” the Austin tech executive told me. “ ‘Those who want the day to be about gun control or campus carry can do whatever they want. August 1 belongs to this remembrance and this monument to those who have fallen.’ ”
Late this spring, the members of the group received word that UT had approved the memorial’s design, and they began reaching out to victims’ families—both to tell them of the plans for a memorial and to obtain consent to have their loved ones’ names included. UT had never conducted any outreach with these families over the years, leaving the group with no contact information and few clues to go by. Using Google, Facebook, digital newspaper archives, and ancestry websites, they managed to track down relatives for every person who had been slain. “All of them expressed gratitude that we had put the effort into creating a memorial, and many said they wanted to come to the ceremony,” Preece said. A member of Charles Whitman’s family—his aunt—was thankful to hear that Whitman’s mother, Margaret, and his wife, Kathy, would be listed among the victims. (Whitman stabbed* them hours before he arrived at the Tower.) James was the one who called. “Being able to speak with one of Charles Whitman’s family members, and hear her empathy, was one of the most important moments in my life,” James told me.
As this story goes to press, the Mountain Red granite for the memorial is being cut, polished, and inscribed. It was hewed from a quarry near Enchanted Rock. Snuff, who came up with the idea of aligning the memorial with the Tower, told me that he finds great significance in the stone’s origins. Enchanted Rock, he explained, earned its name because the Comanche, Apache, and Tonkawa believed it was inhabited by spirits. When the heat of the day would recede and the rock cooled, it creaked—sounds the Native Americans thought were supernatural. So too does Snuff see the slab of granite as a place where the victims’ spirits will live on.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the shooting started at 11:52 a.m. and that Whitman shot his wife and mother. We regret the errors.