If you don't want to read about this horrible day, go to my other memoirs:
Rosedale In The 50's
Memories of an Austin kid
August 1, 1966
The original version of this piece was written in 1996. Here are some updates.
I shot this photograph on April 1st, 2007 from the west side of The University of Texas tower's observation deck. This was the first time I had visited the University of Texas Tower observation deck since prior to August 1st, 1966, when Charles Whitman rained down a withering fire of bullets from this vantage point. Thanks to some connections I have made, I was allowed to go along with a group of former Austin police officers who were on the tower that fateful day and participated in the elimination of Whitman.
The white air conditioning unit on the roof in middle of this photograph probably
saved my life on August 1st, 1966. At 11:55 a.m., along with two of my Longhorn
Band friends, I was standing on the sidewalk just under the now-existing black
sign with white letters that reads "Wish." I have drawn a crude oval
showing our approximate 1966 location. As a note of historical accuracy, in
1966, the entire ground level area under the signs Wish, Austin's Pizza and
Sprint was one large drug store/soda fountain-cafe called Renfro's Rexall Drug
Store. This is where I met my pals for lunch every school day that semester.
Whitman may have considered us for targets, since he could have probably seen
our heads over the ac unit. But he probably could not have seen our bodies and
at that point in the rampage, he was aiming for midsections. Instead, he chose
to shoot a 38 year-old military veteran named Harry Walchuk, who was standing
in the door of a narrow newsstand that was located just to the south of us.
(In this photograph, it is where you see a yellowish building's north edge and
a black and white striped awning above it.) The newsstand closed many years
ago and the building was expanded to the north to encompass its real estate.
(November 2004-- if you want an account with more of a third person slant, go to this site--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page. Then type "Charles Whitman" in the search window.)
(November 2001--Here's another marker in time. David Gunby, who was the third, or possibly fourth, person shot that day, died this month. He was 58. His wounded body was part of the tableau in the middle of the main mall, along with Thomas Eckman, Claire Wilson and Claude Devereaux. Since the esteemed Mr. Whitman basically shot out most of his kidneys, he had been on thrice-weekly dialysis ever since 8-1-66. He finally had become bedridden and his eyesight was practically gone, so he just gave it up. The Fort Worth coroner ruled it a homicide, and well he should.)
(Still another note--8-28-01. Incredibly, I have now received notes from someone who knew me in grade school and a man who knew Thomas Karr, one of the victims. In fact, Karr was shot and killed just about fifty or sixty feet to the north of me. I am still intrigued by the stories I hear about that day, so if anyone would care to contact me with one, please do.)
(Another note, 8-18-01. After the Dateline NBC Show on the shootings last night, I received an e-mail from Claire Wilson, the first person shot on the ground that day. She must have done a web search and came across my site. Since I have thought about her so much over the past 35 years, wondering what had happened to her, that was quite an overpowering e-mail to receive. It turns out that she was on Plan II, like I was. What a wondrous thing this Internet is.)
--I understand that there is a course at UT now about perception of the incident and the image of the tower in public memory. Yes, the fact is, I cannot even get a glimpse of the tower without the memory of that day flooding over me. As a lifelong Austin resident, I resent this fact. My whole childhood, I was full of the expectation of one day being a UT student and enjoying my classes there. Before the incident, the tower was a symbol of hope and aspiration for me. But ever since 8-1-66, I can't get anywhere close to campus without thinking about the choice Whitman made to shoot Harry Walchuk and not me or one of my pals who were standing by me. Once, my mother told me that as she was laying there in her hospital room after giving me birth at the old Seton Hospital (26th and Rio Grande), she mused that her son was born in the shadow of the UT Tower. How ironic that the existence of that tower almost cost me my life twenty years later. Let's face it. That observation deck was just perfect for a madman like Whitman.
--Has it affected my life? Yes. Scarcely a day goes by when I don't think about the incident. It's also made me appreciate what I was given through sheer luck that day--a second chance to get out there and make something out of myself. I'm sure that one reason my wife and I have been so generous with our resources to arts groups and health-related organizations is that I am so grateful to just be alive.The randomness of the universe landed in my favor that day. Has it made me more paranoid? Yes. I often anticipate disasters before they happen and I've managed to avoid some mistakes because of it.
Anyway, here is my story. This version was written in 1996.
The day I've tried to escape for thirty years. (Or "Whitman Redux.")
Every year, when August approaches, I start trying to forget the thing; but as any rational person knows, when you TRY to forget something, you just end up thinking about it more. The day I'm referring to is August 1, 1966. Yes, the wonderful day that Charles Whitman got on top the UT Tower and proceeded to fire on those of us on the ground. In the process of his rampage, he killed 16 people and wounded 31. The murder total included his wife and mother. He did them in before he dressed up like a workman, packed a steamer trunk full of guns, ammo, binoculars, deodorant (for real), a radio, (so he could listen to his own exploits being recounted), and the other necessities of life, and went to campus. Since 1996 is the thirtieth anniversary of the incident and there was so much pr about it all, the effects it had on me were even worse this year. The revelation of just how much this damned day haunts me came when I dropped everything I was doing at work and turned on the radio to listen to Paul Pryor and Neal Spelce (the local newsman who was caught in the middle of it like I was) talk about the thing on KVET. (As anyone who knows me professionally will attest, I don't stop work in the middle of the day for anything. What's more, I was so freaked that I made up an excuse to go see a client and then stopped by Amy's on Guadalupe to get a malt.) Well, it's a full month later and I still can't quit rewinding that hour and a half in my mind like some endless loop of bad TV on a cable station at 3 a.m. Anyway, this piece is going to be a bit of self-help therapy. I felt that if I wrote about it, it would help me chase a few demons. So, if you among my community of e-mail buddies want to listen, pull up your chairs. Otherwise, delete this message and go to the next. Here goes.
That day started out in the midst of one of the better times of my life. I had just turned twenty and I was in a couple of interesting summer school classes. Another football season was coming up and I was looking forward to what I knew would be my last year playing sax in the Longhorn Band. To top things off, I had just been told that I had been accepted for a plum job in the advertising dept. at the University Co-op. In short, I was on top of the world. My daily schedule that year included meeting two of my old band buddies for lunch at the Rexall Drug Store on the Drag, right across from the Student Union Building at 11:20 or so. We'd sit there in the little soda fountain, have burgers and solve the problems of the world. Then at 11:45 or so, we'd split for our afternoon classes. My post-prandial route took me down to the crosswalk at the Co-op, where I'd go east by the Academic Center and then diagonally across the Main Mall to the Business Economics Bldg. library. Fact is, I tried to time things so I'd be in the middle of the Main Mall at 11:50, because I knew that a girl I was interested in would be coming the opposite way at that time and she would often see me and stop to say hello. For some reason on August 1st, 1966, our lunch conversation went on longer than usual. When we walked up to the cash register to pay, the cashier told us "You guys better not go out there -- somebody's shooting a gun." Of course, our reaction was, "Oh yeah, right." What would anyone think? It was a sunny day on a sleepy college campus; not a war zone. Several possibilities came to mind. First, some pranksters probably had some firecrackers left over from the Fourth and were doing some mischief. Second, maybe the bank down at the south end of the Drag was being held up and the police were in a gun fight with the robbers. Third, it was total bs and some local crazy was just trying to scare people by spreading a stupid story about shots. But I do remember looking back at the clock on the wall and thinking that well, darn, I'm already a little behind schedule--if this is true, I hope it doesn't put me too far off track and I get to class on time. (Type A's are like that.)
After absorbing that admonition, we barged right out the door anyway and stood
there in front of the drug store looking south down the Drag trying to figure
out what she was talking about. Down in the next block, we could see that there
was a group of people milling around in front of the Co-op, looking east towards
the campus. One girl in particular was pointing with emphatic gestures across
the street. Then we heard a rapid succession of snaps in the distance. To be
honest, they were so faint that we instantly agreed that they were firecrackers.
But for some reason, we didn't move. And I'll admit, I was feeling very, the
only word that comes to mind is, creepy. Like I had a good reason to be scared,
but didn't know exactly why.
Just then, a earsplitting cracking sound rang out and I felt a rush of something violent going past my right ear. I am not exaggerating when I say that I almost felt the shot's heat. It was so sharp and loud that it sounded like the Jolly Green Giant had let loose a giant rubber band against the building. Instantly, we scurried back inside the drug store. My trumpeter friend then made a big deal of standing there with the door half open, poking his head out until the pharmacist yelled at him to quit letting the ac escape. We milled around and after a couple of minutes, he and the other guy decided to see what was happening on campus. They burst through the door and went scampering across the street to the Union, making themselves wide open to be shot. They later acted like I was chicken for not coming with them. Incredible. Well, when you're twenty, you're bulletproof. We all know that.
In the aftermath, after I had read all the news stories and talked with many people about it, I managed to string together the truth about what I had just seen. Whitman had started by storming the tower, killing and wounding some people in the winding stairwell at the top after shooting the attendant woman at the desk on the observation deck landing. After he got set up for business, he began the spree at 11:48 by shooting everyone he could see in the middle of the Main Mall. By all accounts, the first person he shot on the ground was Claire Wilson, a pregnant woman who got hit in the abdomen. (The baby died; she didn't.) On any other day that whole semester, I would have been in the middle of the mall just at that time. My corroboration of that fact is that the girl I was interested in later told me that she and the guy she was walking with were just at the steps on the south edge of the Mall by the statue of Woodrow Wilson when they saw two people get hit. They dropped to their knees and crawled east down the sidewalk to safety, using the wall as a shield. I think that the crowd we saw in front of the Co-Op was reacting to the shooting of the newsboy Alex Hernandez just across the street, at the main entrance to the West Mall. At the point I was looking down the Drag, people were probably trying to get his wounded body to safety.
Whitman may have been crazy, but he had a brilliant strategic plan in operation. By scattering his shots to different target areas, he accomplished exactly what he had hoped for. Groups of people like us were standing around making nice fat targets, trying to figure out what the heck was happening all over campus, since there was a lull between the shots in our area. I feel somewhat certain that the shots we heard in the distance were part of CW's return to the Main Mall, where he hit and killed Robert Boyer, an internationally-known visiting professor who was on the mall. They sounded more to our right than our left, so I think they were not any of the shots to the north of us, like at say, Robert Heard in front of the Journalism Building or the people around Hogg Auditorium. After CW finished there, he ran back around to the west side of the observation deck and started down the Drag again.
That ear-splitting shot that we heard was, I feel sure, the one that took the life of Harry Walchuk, a 38-year old veteran with six children. He had been standing in the entrance of this little hole-in-the-wall newsstand right by the drug store, asking about a magazine, making a stationary target. About thirty minutes later, the owner of the newsstand got on the radio station which we were listening to inside the store. Somebody at the station must have had brains enough to call him, knowing that he would answer. "Hell, I don't know why he didn't shoot me. I was sitting right there at my change stand!" The pharmacist behind me laughed and said, "Yeah, that's old _____, all right." Well, I had been asking myself the same thing. At that point, it had become very plain to me that standing by that door was our salvation. Otherwise, it would have taken a slight move to his right for Whitman to have wasted at least one or two of us. We were just so quick to get inside that he didn't have time to get us, because he was moving his target field north up the Drag.
I have often wondered if the next two shots we heard as soon as we got inside were the ones that got Karen Griffith and Thomas Karr just to the north of us in front of Snyder-Chenards. I could swear that was a construction walkway there and that both of them were in it when they got shot. The only wounded person I ever saw after I got inside the store was Harry Walchuk, when he was brought out on his stretcher. Our vantage point brought us up flush with the stores on either side of us. And believe me, I wasn't going outside that building unless I actually saw somebody who needed help. I can't tell you how many times I've pondered why he chose that fellow and not one of us. What went through CW's mind? Was that guy older and more married looking and CW hated his own life so much that he took out his frustrations on that poor soul ? Did he even see us? We were just as fat a target, we were about fifteen feet away from Walchuk and CW was totally unopposed by return fire that early on in the spree.
I couldn't help but think this year that if Walchuk had lived, he'd be almost 70 now, maybe retired with grandkids. I've also done a lot of George Bailey thinking about my own life or should I say, death. Who would Linda Ball have married? Who would have done Michael Dell's advertising the first three years he was in business? What would it have done to my parents if I had been killed? It goes on and on.
Back to my story--by the time noon rolled around and after we had turned on several radios inside the drug store, we were able to figure out what the heck was going on, though we didn't know if there was more than one person up there. If I really tried, I could recount about thirty little snippets, but I don't know how much you want to hear.
--Suddenly, this little group of about twenty of us, counting customers and employees, who were stuck in the store were a community of our own, wondering when this would be over, turning on radios, trying to make sense of it all. When the news came across the air that several people had been shot in the middle of the Main Mall, I thought they were like those people in the Thornton Wilder novel "Bridge of the San Luis Rey" who happened to be on a rope bridge when it collapsed, killing all of them. A paragraph in Time Magazine the week afterwards started out with that same thought--something like "Drawn together through fate or chance like the characters in 'Bridge of the San Luis Rey'. . ." That really made me feel weird, but it was a pretty obvious literary allusion.
--They started reading the names of the dead as they were taken to Brackenridge Hospital. Robert Boyer's name was mentioned. I thought it was a Robert Boyer who had been in many Plan II classes with me. Later I found out it was that visiting professor and not the guy I knew.
--A policeman named Billy Speed was killed. One of the Hispanic girls who waited tables in the soda fountain went bananas about it when that news was read on the air. Evidently he was well known on the east side of town.
--My old high school bud Bob Higley was interviewed-- he got through to the radio station. He and the UT Student Body President Cliff Drummond had managed to drag some wounded people to safety and he told about what he had seen. I remember that the interviewer asked him, "Can you describe what you've been through today?" He replied, "Can I tell you in one word?" The interviewer laughed and said, "I guess you'd better not."
--The cosmetics saleslady and I crouched behind her counter and watched the shots hitting the tower for about five minutes. She said, "Look, you can see the puffs of smoke." Later, I realized that the puffs we saw were actually shots that were directed at Whitman from the guys firing back.
--Paul Bolton, the dean of the whole Austin news establishment, was anchoring the KTBC (now KLBJ) radio newscast. He had Joe Roddy at Brackenridge Hospital and Neal Spelce on campus with Red Rover, the mobile news unit. At one point, Roddy was reading more names of dead from Brack and he said "Paul Sonntag." Bolton interrupted and said, "Joe, read that one back to me--did you say Paul Sonntag? That's my grandson." And it was.
--A huge bearded guy dressed in black charged across the Drag, went scrambling up behind one of the cars parked along the curb and frantically waved towards the newsstand. His eyes were wild with fright and he was trembling so hard, I thought he was going to burst. What a brave man! I realized then that somebody must be hurt in there. From our vantage point, we couldn't see that anyone had been hit. Suddenly, an ambulance appeared from out of nowhere and squealed to a stop. Then the hairy guy ran over and helped another fellow carry a stretcher with Walchuk on it out of the newsstand. He was an older than average student or a professor with clean cut features and black glasses. His face was ashen, his eyes were closed, and I then realized that the tobacco pipe we had seen laying on the sidewalk, in the corner of our line of sight, must have belonged to him. I had just thought someone running away had dropped it in their haste. A girl standing near me muttered, "That poor guy." Now I was starting to feel bad about not trying to help, though there was darn little I could have done of any consequence. Besides that, I later heard there were plenty of people in there trying to take care of him anyway. About two or three days later, there was a front page picture in the Statesman of the military funeral he received.
--I later found out that two people, one man and one woman, were killed just to the north of us as well, and I didn't see either one of them. There was a construction walkway where they got hit--remodeling was going on at the Snyder-Chenards dress shop.
--Towards the end, it sounded like a free fire battle zone. It was like half the people in town with a deer rifle showed up and started wailing away. I asked the pharmacist if I could use the restroom at one point--and on the way to it, I looked out his back door to the west. There were two guys over on the lawn of the Pi Phi house running across the yard with rifles. Somebody else was yelling at them to keep down. This was before the Castillian dorm was built which would have blocked that view. Of course, that opens up another line of thought. What if the Castillian and the Dobie had been built at that point? (The two high rise private dorms within a block of campus.) They would have offered a shooting gallery for CW, with kids clustering to their windows, making great targets.
--Somehow, when it was over, we flat out knew it. Neal Spelce said over the radio that the shooting had quit. There was a moment's hesitation and then, an athletic-looking African-American guy went striding across the Drag, taking huge long gliding steps. He had this big smile on his face--about a year later, I saw him starring in an off-campus play. That was all the signal we needed. Suddenly, all the stores emptied. We were like lemmings going to the sea--quietly. No one was saying anything--we were just charging to the Tower. What a strange feeling this whole scene engendered. What seemed like five hundred people or so, just moving in one direction, not saying a word. As we swept east on the West Mall, a weird tableau of three men parted us like the Red Sea, freezing me for a few seconds. And we all knew what they had done, no doubt. In the middle was a Hispanic policeman (Martinez) who was in an advanced state of shock. His uniform was soaked through and his teeth were chattering. Holding him up on his left was an older white guy and on his right was a taller APD officer.
Later I learned that APD Officer Houston McCoy, standing beside Martinez, had actually fired the fatal shots with his shotgun after Martinez had emptied his revolver at CW. From what I have heard, the coroner's report showed no .38 bullets had hit Whitman. The older white guy was whispering soothing words to Martinez as they walked past. "You did OK, buddy, ease up, you did OK. It's all right, It's OK."
McCoy and Officers Day, Conner, Moe, Shoquist and Shepard were still on the tower, tending to the crime scene, the dead and the wounded. A high-ranking DPS officer, William A. "Dub" Cowan, was also involved in the tower. (This set of circumstances would in some ways cause Martinez to get sole credit for the kill. Martinez got back to the station and gave his report immediately. By the time the other officers got back to the station, a hastily-thrown together news conference would give the news-hungry media a story that didn't even mention McCoy. The story that Martinez fired the fatal shots would be promulgated by the media for decades to come. About a decade after the shootings, Police Chief Bob Miles admitted in the newspaper that it was shame that the wrong guy got the credit. One more fact-- McCoy was the only APD uniformed officer to be called before the grand jury. It was ruled a justifable homicide. Today, the shotgun he used to kill CW is in a case at APD headquarters and Houston McCoy is labled as the shooter.)
An aside--It turned out that Allen Crum, the security officer for the University
Co-op, was part of the drama on top of the tower. When I went to work for the
Co-op two weeks later, Mr. Crum gave us fledging employees a lecture on store
security and dropped in an anecdote about a shoplifting incident he had had
with "our friend" Whitman in the store.
When I got to the Main Mall, the scene that greeted me was pretty awful. I'll spare you the details, but it looked like the aftermath in a battle zone. Then I ran around to the west side of the Main building, in time to see them bringing out a stretcher carrying a boy who had been shot in the tower stairwell. He was horribly wounded. Turns out he was slated to start his second year in the Air Force Academy that fall. He was later interviewed in the hospital-- his aunt and brother had been killed and his mother was wounded. Incredibly, he managed a wave to the crowd as he was being loaded into the ambulance. His mother later wrote a book about the whole event, including her struggles with the partial blindness she suffered as a result. (This scene was being shot from the north side, behind the ambulance, looking south towards where I was standing. Darned if they didn't play this film thirty years later on KEYE and I saw my 20 year old self, standing there watching and stunned, along with about fifty other people. I'd say my memory of the day has held up pretty well, since I was exactly where I would have pinpointed myself--behind about four rows of people, just steps back from the main crowd that had already formed when I ran up.) As I milled around with the rest of the crowd and moved back to the front of the Main Building, I suddenly spotted the front of the Red Rover mobile unit down at the south end of the Main Mall, just protruding into sight past the George Washington statue. That maroon color was unmistakable to an old Austin kid like me. I figured that if I went over there, I might be able to hear something about the shooter. So I started dogtrotting in that direction. Sure as heck, there was Neal Spelce in the open front door of Red Rover, mike in hand. I recognized him from his TV appearances as anchorman on KTBC. Never one to be shy, I went right over by him and stood there. He was listening to the monitor in his unit as one of the reporters back at the station had the air. It was over his monitor that I heard the words everyone in Austin wanted to know. "OK--we've got a full identification on the shooter now--he was Charles J. Whitman, etc." Spelce and I have been professional competitors and friends for decades now, since we both opened Austin ad agencies, but it wasn't until this year that I thought to tell him I was standing by his left side at that fateful moment. Another guy and I stood there for about three or four more minutes and it became obvious that there wasn't a lot more to hear, so we went our ways.
Then, I guess some sort of delayed shock set in and I went on southeast to the BEB to see if we were going to have class. In retrospect, I know that sounds idiotic, but I guess my mind was struggling to put things to rights so intensely that I was doing something that was seemingly stupid. I just wanted my marketing class to reappear and my classmates to show up so we could be normal-feeling people again. Actually, one other guy did the same thing. We stayed there for a few minutes and then it sank in how foolish we were being, so we just split. Type A forever, I guess. As I went back across campus, I settled in on one of those benches at the base of the Main Mall just to take it in. Now they started bringing the dead out of the tower past us, towards ambulances on the inner campus drive. A man , who I now know was M.J. Gabour, was walking by the stretcher team, telling people to get out of the way, very distraught. That was his sister dead on the stretcher.
How did I feel after that? Strangely energized, glad to be alive, yet still in a state of mild suppressed panic. Though I was outwardly calm, I knew that there was a lot going on that I was pushing under the surface. I do know that ever since, whenever something bad happens and makes me feel rotten, I have told myself that but for Harry Walchuk being a more tempting target that day, I perhaps wouldn't be alive at all. Was CW crazy? It really makes you stretch the meaning of the word. This guy had everything planned to the nth degree, including leaving a roll of film to be developed with instructions and thanks for doing it at his house. Like I said, he had a preplanned strategy to maximize the body count. And that footlocker even had a bottle of deodorant in it. To me, a crazy person is someone who just goes berserk and starts firing at random. CW had a massive, intricate, malice-aforethought plan in place.
My marketing professor, who was a young guy barely older than the rest of us, told us the next time we had class that there was a campuswide loudspeaker system that could have been used to tell everyone to stay the hell indoors. But in the panic that ensued, nobody thought to use it. I'll bet they would now.
I honestly feel like I was spared death twice that day. Because our lunch conversation went on longer than usual, I was not in the middle of the Main Mall at 11:50. I know that this assertion sounds like something I am making up to produce a good story, but it's true. And because the cashier at the drug store was bold enough to tell us to hold up, we hesitated just long enough to not be further down the Drag when CW turned his attentions back there. But was I any luckier than anyone else? Heck, there were thousands of stories like mine that day. One guy in my marketing class told me that he had a habit of sitting at one of those stone benches on the south edge of the Main Mall every day to eat a sack lunch at 11:45. That one day, he'd run out of sandwich bread and ate somewhere else instead.
What's random and what's calculated? I think that all you can do is try to keep the odds in your favor by doing as many of the right things as you can. Oh well, that's enough. Thanks for listening. I'm just trying to get rid of this ghost.
Go to memories of Rosedale days. . .