in the beginning was the Tower

On August 01, 1966 twenty-five-year-old Charles Whitman drove from his house on Jewell Street in Austin, Texas to the University of Texas campus where he arrived between 11:25 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.. He drove directly to the Tower that was the focal point of the campus, a building completed in 1937 that was Austin’s tallest building at 913 feet with twenty-eight floors and a public observation deck on the top floor. Whitman entered the Tower between 11:30 a.m. and 11:35 a.m.; he wore overalls that gave him the appearance of a workman with dolly and equipment (in reality a footlocker filled with guns and ammunition) which allowed him to take an elevator to the twenty-seventh floor where he exited the elevator to drag the dolly up three half flights of stairs and a short narrow hallway to a landing that led to the observation deck. The first person he shot and murdered in the building was the receptionist who would normally have had the day off.

Ninety-six minutes later, following a meticulously planned attack that resulted in the deaths of fifteen people and thirty-one others injured, Charles Whitman was dead, shot and killed at the top of the Tower by two city of Austin policemen on the same deck his reign of terror had been carried out.

“It took Charles Whitman an hour and a half to turn the symbol of a premier university into a monument to madness and terror. With deadly efficiency he introduced America to public mass murder, and in the process forever changed our notions of safety in open spaces. Arguably, he introduced America to domestic terrorism, but it was terrorism without a cause.” (A Sniper in the Tower, Gary Lavergne, 1997)

This past weekend three funerals were held for the latest victims of another horrific attack at a university, this one at Michigan State University on February 13th. I had followed the coverage of those students whose lives were lost, whose families’ dreams for their children were destroyed by random violence at a place that should have been safe. On the very next day, Valentine’s Day, here in South Carolina at a grocery story fifteen minutes from our home two women had an exchange of hateful words that resulted in one of the women shooting the other woman, killing her in front of her two year old child and infant.

So I already was troubled by these unrelated tragedies when Pretty casually handed me a paperback copy of A Sniper in the Tower, the Charles Whitman Murders. She found the book on one of her treasure hunts and gave it to me because she knew I had been a student at the University of Texas when the Tower killings took place. Normally when Pretty hands me a book I scan the contents but don’t follow through with actually reading, but the memory of the Tower massacre is as shocking today as it was when I first heard of what happened during summer school at UT. I had a job in Rosenberg, Texas and was living with my parents when Whitman rode the elevator to annihilate as many people as he could. I read every word of this 300+ pages account by Gary Lavergne that explored not only the lives of Charlie Whitman and his family but also the situations of the victims that led them to the Tower area on that fateful day. I was mesmerizd by these stories and finished the book in two days.

In August, 1977 author Harry Crewes wrote an article in Esquire about his visit to the University of Texas where his host gave an unsolicited tour of the Tower massacre site. “What I know is that all over the surface of the earth where humankind exists men and women are resisting climbing the Tower. All of us have a Tower to climb. Some are worse than others, but to deny that you have your Tower to climb and that you must resist it or succumb to the temptation to do it, to deny that is done at the peril of your heart and mind.”

When I returned to UT for the fall semester following the Tower shootings, I saw visible reminders of the events of that day. Nearly sixty years later today I remember seeing bullet holes left in buildings where I attended classes, heard first hand accounts from summer school friends that made me shiver as I felt their fear, and for a while dreaded the Tower chimes on the quarter hour that I had loved when I first enrolled in summer school after graduating from high school in 1964. My last year of classes at UT was always overshadowed by the Tower that had been my beacon of orange light like a lighthouse when I drove my old Nash Rambler over a particular hill on Highway 71 on the way back to school from Rosenberg, the Tower lit orange by a football team victory on the Saturday before.

Lavergne closes his introduction with these haunting words:

“Periodic attempts to understand what happened and why are worthy; since 1 August 1966 there have been other Charles Whitmans, and there will certainly be more. Potential mass-murderers live among us; some of them are nice young men who climb their towers. It is no longer enough to look upon the University of Texas Tower and sigh, ‘This is where the bodies began to fall,’ because the story is larger than that. It is a story of how a nation discovered mass murder, and that nation’s vulnerability to the destructive power of a determined individual.”

In the beginning was the Tower, and sadly, the Tower lives on.


Slava Ukraini. For the children.

About Sheila Morris

Sheila Morris is a personal historian, essayist with humorist tendencies, lesbian activist, truth seeker and speaker in the tradition of other female Texas storytellers including her paternal grandmother. In December, 2017, the University of South Carolina Press published her collection of first-person accounts of a few of the people primarily responsible for the development of LGBTQ organizations in South Carolina. Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home will resonate with everyone interested in LGBTQ history in the South during the tumultuous times from the AIDS pandemic to marriage equality. She has published five nonfiction books including two memoirs, an essay compilation and two collections of her favorite blogs from I'll Call It Like I See It. Her first book, Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing received a Golden Crown Literary Society Award in 2008. Her writings have been included in various anthologies - most recently the 2017 Saints and Sinners Literary Magazine. Her latest book, Four Ticket Ride, was released in January, 2019. She is a displaced Texan living in South Carolina with her wife Teresa Williams and their dogs Spike, Charly and Carl. She is also Naynay to her two granddaughters Ella and Molly James who light up her life for real. Born in rural Grimes County, Texas in 1946 her Texas roots still run wide and deep.
This entry was posted in Lesbian Literary, Life, Personal, Random, Reflections, Slice of Life, The Way Life Is and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to in the beginning was the Tower

  1. Wayside Artist says:

    I have no words. Just sadness.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Charles Doughtie says:

    August 1, 1966, I was there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still can’t believe you were there, Charles. And that you knew the psychiatrist who interviewed Whitman and the coroner, too. You could have written a book from several perspectives.


      • Charles Doughtie says:

        I knew Dr. Coleman DeChenar sort of “in passing” – in the halls etc., but worked under Dr. Maurice Heatley as a ward physician, carried out his orders on a daily basis. My job at ASH ended December 1963 so all of that was in the past. I had just returned to Austin from my USNR active duty in July 1966. I had just begun to re-meet, re-associate, etc., with some of the people I knew and worked with back then.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Gosh, Charles. We just criss-crossed in Austin. I came in June, 1964 and left in August, 1967. Just two kids from Grimes County with an eye’s view of history.


  3. Wow, so sad. Both then and now. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Aisyah says:

    Interesting post. It’s very sad and ironic. Human is indeed a real complex creatures with both beauty and ugly.

    Liked by 1 person

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