August 1 marks a very somber anniversary for the University of Texas and Austin. On that day 50 years ago, Charles Whitman, a 25-year old former marine, climbed to the top of the UT Tower, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, two pistols, and a deer rifle, and opened fire.
When the melee was over, Whitman had taken 15 lives and wounded 45. The death toll rose when it was discovered that Whitman had also killed his mother and wife before heading to the tower. Whitman also died, shot by a courageous police officer. At the time in 1966, the nation had never experienced anything like it. It was Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Colloff who wrote, “Whitman introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space.”
Hundreds of students and others at UT witnessed the hour-and-a-half rampage, which encompassed five city blocks of the campus. The incident is the most painful in the university’s history.
In observance of the 50th anniversary of the UT Tower shooting, "Texas Standard" is producing “Out of the Blue: 50 Years After the UT Tower Shooting,” which comprises an hour-long radio oral history, five-part reporting series from July 26-August 1, and a permanent oral history archive at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.
On Monday, July 25, “Texas Standard” will devote its statewide, hour-long broadcast on KUT to stories of more than 100 eyewitness accounts of the UT Tower shooting. Many of the survivor’s stories have never been shared publicly.
And on August 1, UT will unveil a stone memorial with the victims’ names at a service dedicated to the victims and those forever affected by the tragedy.
In our own look back at the UT Tower shooting 50 years ago, we talked with best-selling Austin author Elizabeth Crook, whose 2014 novel, Monday, Monday, reimagines the day and the aftermath of the tragedy through the eyes of survivors. Crook shared her thoughts on the anniversary and the lasting impact of the tragedy.
CultureMap: Many people shared personal accounts of the tower shooting and how it affected their lives with you for Monday, Monday. What was the most surprising thing you learned?
Elizabeth Crook: The most relevant but probably not the most surprising thing is how clearly the people there that day still remember everything they witnessed, and how the memories continue to weigh on them. In talking to people it seemed to me that none of them had really left that day behind. Most had moved on with their lives, but they carried that day with them.
CM: Ironically, the 50th anniversary also is the day the new campus carry bill will take effect, allowing anyone with a license to carry a gun almost anywhere on campus. It was reported that on the day of the Whitman shootings, several students fired back with deer rifles. Do you know if that is true? What are your thoughts on campus carry?
EC: It’s true that people fired back. Circumstances were different from what they are today: There were no SWAT teams, police were armed only with service revolvers, and their radio communication was limited. Civilians shooting up at the tower hindered Whitman for a period of time, but after police made it up into the tower the ground fire became a hazard. Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, the two policemen who shot Whitman, had to crouch and crawl on the deck when they got up there because of so much dangerous fire from the ground. It’s hard to imagine the confusion and hazard that would have resulted if those people on the ground had been firing AR-15s.
As for campus carry, I absolutely do not think it will deter random acts of violence, I think it’s pretty certain to create them. We saw during the recent horrendous shooting of police in Dallas how armed civilians endangered themselves, confused police, and were of course utterly ineffective in stopping the sniper. After the Whitman incident, even the notoriously conservative FBI director J. Edgar Hoover stated that “Those who claim that the availability of firearms is not a factor in murders in this country are not facing reality.”
CM: Your books have focused on historical characters and events. What do you believe we can learn from the UT Tower shooting?
EC: That, along with better gun laws, we need more efficient and available mental healthcare. Charles Whitman himself admitted that his violent impulses were driven by serious mental illness. He wrote a letter the night before his killing spree saying he was suffering from “mental turmoil” and felt he had “psychiatric disorders.” He said, “I don’t really understand myself these days … After my death I wish an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is some visible physical disorder.” He asked that whatever was left of his money be donated “anonymously to a mental health foundation,” saying, “Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.” It’s up to us as a society to provide mental healthcare for people who need it.