People always remember where they are when something terrible happens. Everyone can give you their 9/11 memories right now if they were old enough to remember. If you happened to be in Austin, Texas in the summer of 1966, you remember exactly where you were when Charles Whitman acquainted America with the concept of mass murder on a school campus.
People at The University of Texas at Austin didn’t know how to recover after August 1, when one of their own murdered sixteen fellow Longhorns and other civilians. The silence that surrounded the campus afterwards was deafening. The university was not prepared to handle this type of tragedy. No one even knew how to memorialize the people who lost their lives.
There were countless students, faculty, visitors, and others on the campus that afternoon when shots began to fire from the tower. Much of the focus since 1966 has been on the shooter, Charles Whitman, and the people he killed. But it is critical to focus on the survivors of that day: How did they live and continue carrying the memories of August 1, 1966? How do these people define themselves? Are they victims? Are they survivors? Eye witnesses?
After that deadly day, people struggled with remembering or forgetting the day that would forever change their lives. The survivor’s stories are the most powerful aspect of any project, article, or book on the events of the UT tower shooting. Yet still many people have not heard these stories and many know very little about the shooting itself.
What would have happened if the strong media presence that exists today had existed on August 1 1966? Would it have helped uncover the silenced memories of the murders? Or would they have been over-told? Few people had a platform to speak until years later, carrying around their stories without a voice. In 1999 Karan Elliot reflected on the shooting and wrote, “This tragedy has had a profound effect on my life and the memories will never fade.”1 Suzanne Rhoads wrote that “for years after that, when there was a loud noise, I would cringe.”2 These women never forgot how the shooting impacted their lives.
In 1983 Sarah Rider interviewed Morris Hohmann who is a survivor of the shootings. He risked his life to retrieve the wounded and ended up getting shot in the process. He resents that he is remembered for being shot by the “notorious” Charles Whitman. His life after the shooting would be known for only one thing: that he was shot. On that August day, Morris picked up the first victim, Robert Boyer, and took him to Brackenridge Hospital. Robert Boyer was shot in the south mall and dragged into a building by onlookers, where police were able to get to him faster. After another rescue attempt, Morris got shot in his leg. The bullet didn’t exit or break a bone, but he nearly died from loss of blood and remained in the hospital for 21 days. Hohmann says that he has formed a bond with the people he knows who also experienced that day with him.3
There are people who chose to remember every day, and there are people who wish to forget it every day. In 1989, a UT student named Kevin Reed spoke about his memory of the event, saying that “It happened so long ago that it’s more of a curiosity than anything else, I think most students know about… what happened at the tower, but nobody likes to dwell on it.” Reed acknowledges that he is in a group of people who don’t know how to respond, even after so much time has passed. On the 25th anniversary, a UT spokesman said that there was nothing planned in terms of having a ceremony or service as the University of Texas sat in silence again.4
Alwyn Barr is a survivor who is now a 77-year-old retired college professor. He was at UT working on his Ph.D. that summer of 1966. That morning his wife was off campus and eight months pregnant, Barr remembers thinking that his child would grow up without a father. Now looking back, Barr reflects, “It would have been better if the campus police at The University of Texas in 1966 could have responded more quickly.” Barr remembers the event with a critical lens in light of the university’s current gun debates. “The general idea, of course, is that a university ought to be a place where you carry on debates and discussion about a variety of topics in the process of learning. But this is such a tricky thing, in the sense that there’s overtones of violence, and the fact that it’s there, at the University of Texas, where violence has taken place,” he stated. Although the university has been silent in the past about the tower shooting, more than enough time has passed, and people are speaking out. This year, finally, there are plans to have a larger memorial for the people who lost their lives on August 1, instead of the tiny plaque that exists now. Also, like Barr, many people fear the danger in having concealed carry because of shootings at UT and at other schools. Others justify concealed carry in the belief that they can protect themselves if such a shooting occurs again.5
It is now time for The University of Texas to take stock of all of these stories and to find a way to break the silence behind the shootings.