John Shearer: Remembering The Tragic Texas Tower Shooting Of 50 Years Ago

Thursday, July 28, 2016 - by John Shearer

One day in late July 1986, I was going through the 1966 Chattanooga newspaper microfilm in the Chattanooga News-Free Press’ library/morgue on 11th Street. 

Being interested in history, I had talked city editor Julius Parker two years before into letting me write a weekly historical column in which I looked at events that took place in Chattanooga and beyond 10 and 20 years ago that particular week. 

I was gathering some information for what was happening in early August 1966 – which was then 20 years earlier – when suddenly a story at the top of Page 1 of the Aug. 2 News-Free Press jumped out at me in an eye-grabbing manner. 

It told of how a 25-year-old University of Texas engineering student named Charles J. Whitman had stabbed his mother and wife to death at separate residences during the early morning hours of Aug. 1. Then, in the early afternoon that same day, he shot and killed or wounded nearly 50 others from the landmark UT-Austin Tower, or Main Building. 

As I read about that shocking story on microfilm, it dawned on me that this was the incident I remembered watching on the TV news in 1966 as a 6-year-old. I have not forgotten sitting on the tile floor in the den of our then-1-year-old home in Valleybrook in Hixson possibly playing and seeing the news. I recall that my parents were shocked, and I was trying to make sense of it at such a young age. 

While tragic mass killings by radical Islamic terrorists or those with other forms of hate or with mental health problems have become much more commonplace – especially in recent months – the Texas shooting was kind of a modern first. 

It was considered the first mass shooting at a school and was basically about the only random American mass shooting of its type until the 1990s, even though a few such tragic killings had occurred before 1966. 

Because of the Texas event’s sad significance and my memories of viewing it on TV, I have periodically read about the case out of personal interest. As a result, I decided to do a story in connection with the 50th anniversary and somber remembrance ceremony planned at the University of Texas for the anniversary day on Monday. 

I had tried to track down some University of Texas alumni from that time period who might now live near Chattanooga. But I was unsuccessful after contacting the school’s alumni office several days ago and not hearing back. However, I recalled that Mary Jane McBride, a friend of my wife, Laura, attended school there at the time. 

The longtime administrative assistant for the local Bible in the Schools office and wife of longtime former Baylor School history teacher John McBride said recently that she was in Austin that summer working. In fact, she might have been near the shooting if not for changing her usual routine that day, which, like in 2016, was also a Monday. 

“I worked for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department that summer and would generally go down the street in front of the Tower about that time of day,” she said. “But for some reason I did not go that way on that day.” 

While Mrs. McBride was not on the campus and said she has no first-hand memories of witnessing the tragedy, she put me in contact with former fellow student and current Northern Virginia resident John Bryant, who was there. 

Mr. Bryant, who along with his wife, Vonnie, served as best man and maid of honor, respectively, at the McBrides’ wedding, said via email that he had just arrived in Austin after graduating the previous May From Kilgore Junior College in Texas. 

He was in school that summer and by fate had a class on the west side of campus near the Tower. 

“I had a 12 noon class, so I was walking from Guadalupe (the street on the western border of the campus) up the sidewalk past the Student Union to just before the Tower and then turned left into the Biology Building,” he said. “I entered my classroom on the second floor and settled in.” 

While afternoon classes can sometimes be challenging for students who might feel a little sleepy if they had just eaten lunch, that would not be the case on this day, as an eye-awakening and nightmare-like event began playing out. 

“A few moments after the class started, a person came running into the room and said, ‘Stay away from the windows. There is a sniper in the Tower!’ ” Mr. Bryant recalled. 

“Of course, everyone then wanted to look out the windows. But the professor immediately said, ‘Stay back.’ About that same time we became aware of popping sounds, which were the rifle gunfire from the top level of the Tower.” 

What Mr. Bryant and other students and people around the country and world would soon learn was that the gunman Whitman was on top of the 27th floor observation deck below the clock faces randomly firing away at students. 

The Beaux-Art style Tower – which was designed by Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret and completed in 1937 – was generally pretty to look up at. But for more than 90 minutes that day, it was definitely not. 

The rampage had all begun during the early morning hours when the gunman killed his mother, Margaret, at her apartment residence at 1212 Guadalupe St. in Austin near the state capitol, just south of campus. He then killed his sleeping wife, the former Kathy Leissner, at their home at 906 Jewell St. farther south in Austin just across the Colorado River. Both deaths were by means other than with firearms. 

Then, later that morning, the shooter went to several Austin stores – including a Sears – to buy ammunition and guns. Once at the Tower, he killed or wounded several unsuspecting people while working his way up to the observation deck. 

His first shot from atop the tower was fired at 11:48 a.m. central time, and he proceeded to fire shots for more than 90 minutes in various directions. One of the fatal victims was shot from as far away as 1,500 feet by the former sharpshooting-trained U.S. Marine. 

Law enforcement arrived a short time later but they did not have the proper weapons and support equipment at that time period, despite their heroic efforts. Communication was also primitive or compromised. 

And for those caught out on the grounds near the tower and having to try and hide, it was a horrific experience. And so was the situation for those like Mr. Bryant, who were trying to figure out what was taking place while attempting to keep safe. 

“Behind our building, people were lying down behind a small wall at the street to have some protection,” he recalled. “How those people determined that they were targets, I will never know. 

“Down that same street, there was a body lying in the road not moving. We later found out that that person was one of the early victims.  We could not see toward the front of our building or farther out from the Tower.” 

Eventually, three law officers went up to the 26th floor on the elevator of the Tower and then walked up the final floor in an effort to halt Whitman. About 1:25 p.m. – more than 90 minutes after the shooting began – Officer Houston McCoy fired the fatal shots that killed him. 

In addition to his two family members, 12 other people were killed that day on the campus by Whitman, and another two would later die from injuries (including one years later). Although not counted in the tally, an unborn child also died. Another 31 people were injured. 

It was the deadliest school shooting in the United States until the Virginia Tech incident in 2007. 

In contrast to information on shooters and their unstable mental state that often surfaces after such incidents these days, news wire reports in the Chattanooga papers after the Austin shooting revealed shock that the killer was capable of such an atrocity. 

Known for having a high IQ and having been an accomplished piano player, Whitman had been a scoutmaster at a church and had friends. He and his wife had even been with another couple the day before. 

But reports later surfaced that his father had been abusive toward him and his family while he grew up in South Florida, that he had been court martialed in the Marines for gambling and threatening another soldier, and that he had previously made a bizarre comment or two. 

An autopsy – which Whitman asked for among his notes left behind – showed he had a brain tumor, and some medical experts thought that might have contributed to his actions. He had also been counseled and received unspecified medical treatment. 

After the shooting ended and the bodies of Whitman and the other victims were being removed, a crowd of students and others swarmed the area around the Texas Tower. 

Among the people there was Mr. Bryant, who came out after he and his classmates learned that the situation had finally been diffused and an all-clear announcement had been made. 

“I and some of my classmates hurried out of our building and over to the side door of the Tower that faced Guadalupe,” he recalled. “We were standing there when the police and ambulance personnel started removing the bodies of people that the sniper had shot in the Tower.” 

“I remember so distinctly the shape of the objects that were ‘the body bags,’ as bodies were placed on gurneys at the doorway for transporting off campus.” 

Mr. Bryant also recalled walking to the front side of the Tower and looking out across the campus. “There were small clusters of police and people standing around people lying on the ground and awaiting removal to hospitals or off campus,” he said. “I thought, ‘Here was our battle scene today.’” 

Among the detailed attention given the Austin shooting in the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News-Free Press the next day was an editorial in the News-Free Press, apparently written by editor Lee Anderson. 

While calling the incident “an awful” crime of “psychotic horror,” he weighed in on the gun control debate that resulted and did not seem that much different from the debate of 2016. He disagreed with the call of Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut to make the interstate shipment of firearms illegal, saying deranged criminals could still find sporting firearms or even manufacture them themselves. 

Instead, he encouraged stiffer penalties for those simply carrying weapons at a time when open carry permits were not nearly as loose as they later became. While it might not stop all criminals, he added, “Strict penalties against illegal carrying of firearms could save many lives throughout our nation each year.” 

As for how the students and others in the Austin community reacted after the tragedy, Mrs. McBride does not recall a lot of details. 

"I really cannot remember that,” she said. “Since it happened in the summer, I did not go back to campus for almost five weeks after that. School started after Labor Day in those days.” 

Mr. Bryant remembered that it did create some obvious tension. “That August day upset campus life for the remainder of the summer,” he said. 

The Tower’s observation deck was closed after that and some repairs to the bullet holes were later done. It reopened in 1968 but was closed in 1975 after four suicides over several years took place. 

It remained closed until 1999, when it reopened for guided tours and with metal detectors and stainless steel lattice along the ledges. 

Among those involved, Whitman and his mother were buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park near their former home community of Lake Worth, Fla., while Officer McCoy lived until 2012, never trying to make himself the main hero. 

This Monday, a special 50th anniversary remembrance is being held at the campus in Austin beginning at 11:48 central time – the time when the first shots from atop the tower were fired. A new memorial to the victims and survivors is being unveiled at the Tower Garden, with U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a student at the University of Texas at the time, scheduled to be among the speakers. 

The Austin History Center also has an exhibit dedicated to the tragedy that recently opened and will run through Nov. 20. 

The incident has also been the inspiration of a 1975 movie, “The Deadly Tower,” featuring Kurt Russell, and a critically praised 2014 novel, “Monday, Monday.” 

For those who attended the University of Texas at the time, the sense of dismay and loss over what took place still lingers and even connects the former students. 

“It was something everyone was feeling – horror and that it could happen at my school,” said Mrs. McBride. 

Mr. Bryant said that if he is outside on a hot summer day and hears a popping noise like the sound of a firecracker or fireworks, he flinches and immediately starts thinking back to that frightful day in 1966. After all, he was just a few feet away from one of the nation’s most horrific incidents. 

“I guess you can say that it upset me with a longer lingering because today I sometime relive the events,” he said. 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

 



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