This is being scheduled to post at the time and day 50 years after the event.
I’ve been around for a while, and I have seen a few of these days—days that start out as a day like any other. These days get cemented in memory in a way that keeps innocuous details sharp after half a century. This day was like that.
I spent the previous two years assembling motorcycle racing engines, so my mistake in this instance stands out. A derelict motorcycle I had purchased was now completely refurbished and street ready, and I was out and about on it the day before, the fatal flaw already at work to end the life of the engine. It set the stage for what was to follow.
Monday was forecast to see 105 degrees, almost in defiance of the puffs of cloud that broke up the blue background. I finished up my Linear Algebra class just before noon and eased onto the bike, parked on Speedway at the campus south entrance. If I had been observant I might have noticed a black Chevrolet stopped while the guard issued a temporary parking pass.
My plan was lunch, and my immediate goal was the Honda shop on East First Street. The motorcycle did not make it that far. The oil-starved valve train said “enough,” and everything stopped two blocks short. I pushed the corpse the remaining distance and parked it. My wife and I discussed plans for lunch. Since I was going to need a ride back to the campus, a logical solution was G&M Steak House on Guadalupe. Parking would be the only problem.
Parking was always a problem, but a persistent search will usually turn up something recently vacated. We were about Whitis Avenue and 20th Street when we heard the first shots. The Plymouth had no air conditioning, so the windows were open. Construction was in progress at Sutton Hall, and my guess at the time was somebody was using a ram-set gun. These employ an explosive charge and make a lot of noise.
Fortune smiled, and there was an open space on Guadalupe, right across the street from the restaurant. This was going to be our day.
It was 50 years ago today, and you are going to be impressed with the prices. At G&M Steak House you could get a cut of sirloin and a potato for the least part of $1.50. Time has fuzzed my memory, and I do not recall if drink was extra.
We were into our meal when the ambulances started arriving. I took note. Austin had voted to eliminate private ambulance service. Starting today, 1 August 1966, all ambulance service would through a city agency. And they kept coming. What was going on?
A man, likely a student, came through the front door with the announcement, “Somebody is shooting people.” It didn’t yet click. Somebody with a .22 rifle was shooting people? That was so odd. We tried to finish our meal, already paid for. But the ambulances came by on the street out front. They were still the traditional hearse-style cars with side windows, and I thought in one case I could see blood through one of the windows. Lunch was over. Our appetites were over.
We abandoned our plates and walked to the door. Outside people were standing on the sidewalk next to the glass. Somebody must have mentioned the tower, and we looked that way. Safety was a concern. The restaurant design had brick supports under the overhang on either side in the front. They were decorative, angling out from the sidewalk and giving protection to anybody standing behind the one on the north side. We got behind that. I peeked around the edge and looked up at the tower.
The gunman fired. It was no .22. The report rolled like thunder across the neighborhood. I could see the smoke from the shot where the gunman had poked the barrel through a rain spout. I had never done any serious shooting, but I knew a few ways of the world. Whoever was up there owned the space where we stood, and several blocks around. Our day would fare well only if he chose not to direct his attentions our way.
Back inside? No good. A round coming through the glass could end up anywhere inside the restaurant. We could not remain on the sidewalk. Same thing. A bad ricochet, and one of us would join the cadre already choking the ambulance fleet. I looked across the street. On the east side of Guadalupe was a stone wall, not overly high, but something that would give absolute protection to anybody willing to kneel or sit. Memory of the details fails me, but I must have done something like point at the wall, and say something like, “Let’s get over there.”
By now there was no bother with traffic. Guadalupe had emptied, except for the sporadic ambulance. When I say I had done no serious shooting, that’s not the same as saying I had done no shooting. I was experienced at picking off small animals with a telescopic sight, and I figured if I couldn’t make that shot, then it was likely the gunman was not going to be able to pick off a moving target at that distance. Especially if the moving target was really moving.
Reality dawned as we closed the last few feet of open space. The forecast was for 105 that day. The west side of the wall was going to be in direct sun for several hours. The Plymouth was parked there at the curb. The key was out of my pocket and then in my hand before we finished the run. “Get in.” Again the exact wording is unsure. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Still fudging the blanks in memory.
I had no concern about peeling away from the curb into the north-bound lane and making a huge U-turn. Who was going to bother me now? Guadalupe was empty, and the Plymouth was an ex-DPS car with a 318 engine. I floored it. Would a bullet find its way through the Plymouth’s roof before we could rack up enough distance? That was my only concern, not the cop on 19th street waving us through. By Interstate 35 heading south I was beginning to feel safe.
We listened to the remainder of the drama on the radio at the Honda shop. Shortly came the announcement the gunman was dead. Most likely I got back to the University on my old bike, the one I was planning to sell. No work occurred the remainder of the day at the Astronomy Department. I did not go out to look, I never saw any of the places where people had died. I waited until the rain had washed away the blood before I went to those places.
There are other experiences that marked that day. In the office where I worked were a number of engineers like myself. My boss was ex-Navy and a seasoned hunter. Likewise Alan Brun, another engineer. There was some discussion about how the shooter was taken down. Not at this office, but others known to us, typically carried hunting rifles in their pickup trucks. One was the director of the accelerator laboratory. Another was a motorcycle racer I knew who worked there. We wondered if any of those were among the few who returned fire from the street.
The Astronomy Department was finishing up the construction of the 105-inch telescope on Mt. Locke near Fort Davis. Charles “Chuck” Jenkins was a middle-age engineer working as the University’s project coordinator. During the shooting he was on the phone to the prime contractor in California. Chuck’s California connection heard about the shooting and asked Chuck. Chuck said yes. He was on the floor beneath his office window that faced south a few yards from the base of the tower.
Besides engineers in our office we had two women who worked as technical illustrators. One was Cathy Hillburn, whose husband was ex-Air Force—a former F-86 pilot. Another was Kelly Wightman, not long out of high school and a summer stint at Texas A&M. They had taken lunch at the Wyatt cafeteria off campus. One of the servers they were accustomed to seeing was a Mrs. Whitman. Her name was similar to Kelly’s. They remarked she was not there that day.
Cathy and Bill Hillburn were rock-ribbed Republicans, as apparently were my boss and Alan. And the thing I recall most was a remark made by Cathy. With over a dozen dead and many wounded still in recovery, she noted that liberals were going to use this incident as an excuse to restrict gun ownership.
The sad details unfolded. Charles Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife in the early morning hours of Monday. He had prepared well, accumulating a stash of rifles, a knife, and a shotgun. He spent the morning preparing for his assault and got to the University about the time I was pushing my bike out of the parking area. He had his arsenal packed inside a foot locker.
The tower elevators do not go to the observation deck. There are about two flights of stairs yet to go after exiting the elevator. Whitman lugged his footlocker to the tower observation deck and began to make preparations.
The first person he killed was the woman who worked as a receptionist there. He killed her with multiple blows to the head with a rifle butt and ultimately with a blast from the shotgun. He also turned the shotgun on two groups of people who came to catch a view from the tower, killing three. Then he began his shooting rampage, which lasted about 90 minutes. Three officers of the Austin Police Department, accompanied by civilian, Allen Crum, invaded the observation deck and took on the shooter. Following a fusillade of rounds from Officer Ramiro Martinez that missed, Officer Houston McCoy hit Whitman with two shotgun blasts. Martinez finished the job at close range with the shotgun. It was over.
And the world has not been the same since.
It is noted that return fire from a Texas Ranger and from assorted civilians (previously mentioned) kept Whitman’s head down during the later stages of the assault. These shots also inflicted damage to the building, including the tower clock face, which required some reconstruction. See the above photo.
Whitman had gained training in the Marine Corps, and his marksmanship was telling. My belief is that the shot I observed was his last killing shot. He killed electrical repairman Roy Schmidt at a range 1500 feet. Schmidt’s last words supposedly were, “I think I see him.” My thought at the time I saw the shot was that if he could see me, he could kill me.
The following year Rogers Meredith, the racer who worked at the accelerator lab, helped me build one of my racing engines. I took an engine casing in, and he used the heliarc welder to make a modification. A few years later, facing a contentious divorce, he ended his life. He stopped by to visit my sister-in-law on South Bluff Drive (now William Cannon Drive). Then he drove farther down the road and shot himself with a .30-06 rifle.
I worked at the Astronomy Department until 1970. At one point I gave Kelly Wightman a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Kelly was at the time living at home with her mother, and when she took the book home her mother told her she would not allow the book in the house. Kelly moved out, bought a blue British Triumph sports car, and married Malcolm “Mac” MacFarlane, an Astronomy graduate student. I took her wedding portrait, and Byron Black Sr., retired Air Force Colonel and father of my college roommate of the same name, took the wedding photographs. Mac gained his Ph.D. and subsequently was given the job of designing a solution the Hubble Space Telescope focus problem.
Another person at the scene that day was William Helmer, who was on the staff of the The Daily Texan, the school newspaper. I had this artist friend, Tony Bell, and he later told me of the fun times he and Bill Helmer fired off a Tommy gun in the basement of Bill’s house in Austin. Given the gun’s decibel level and the close confines of a basement in Austin, that must have been deaf-defying. Bill authored a book about the weapon, The Gun That Made The 20s Roar. Last I heard Bill was an editor at Playboy.
The year following the University shooting I saw Dickey Martinettes for the last time, a few hours before his cousin shot him in the forehead with a pistol. The two mentioned are among several I have personally known who died by gunfire. I did not know any of Charles Whitman’s victims.
From that day I ceased to see myself as insulated from the drama and the gross tragedy that occur daily. For any one of us any one of these can become a fixture in our lives—not just a newspaper headline. For me it was a part of starting to care.