Fifty years after the UT Tower shooting, a new memorial brings some closure to survivors.
For just the second time on record, the University of Texas at Austin stopped the tower clock on Aug. 1, 2016. It remained that way – arms paused at 11:48 until that time the next morning.
It was at 11:48 a.m., 50 years ago, that a sniper began firing from the tower onto the campus below. The pausing of the clock is part of a ceremony to honor the victims of that shooting.
The late morning of Aug. 1, 2016 was a lot like that day in 1966. It was hot. The sky was bright blue. The campus wasn’t crowded – but students in summer school were making their way around.
Students who have heard about the UT-Austin tower shooting have different levels of understanding about what happened:
“Before I got here, I didn’t know anything about the shooting,” Brenton Galley says.
“I don’t know much about the details I just know that there was one,” Jennifer Zvonek says. “I’m assuming that they were more strict on their safety regulations after that.”
Only one – Kailey Moore – knew that there had been a permanent memorial to the shooting.
“I don’t feel like I knew until maybe my sophomore year,” Moore says. “The original memorial used to be right over there under this tree kind of hidden.”
That memorial – a rock with a plaque on it – is now gone. It’s been replaced with a more than 6-foot-tall pink granite boulder that lists the names of the people killed by the shooter.
The ceremony to dedicate that new memorial started with the tower chimes, then the playing of Taps. The flags on the South Mall of the tower plaza were lowered to half staff. UT-Austin President Greg Fenves led a procession across the mall to the turtle pond – which had been dedicated to the Tower shooting victims several years ago.
Shooting survivor Claire Wilson James was among those in the procession. She walked across the same hot concrete, where 50 years ago she lay bleeding – shot in her pregnant belly next to her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, who was killed by the sniper.
“I’ve asked myself many times over the last several years how can it help to have a memorial,” Wilson James says. “Because I wasn’t raised in that sort of tradition. But for the many people who have come to the university who have seen these fallen where they’ve breathed their last, it will be reassuring and comforting.”
It’s comforting to John Fox who risked his life that day to help lift Wilson James to safety.
“I know two of those people on the monument – they were both in my high school graduating class – Paul Sonntag and Claudia Rutt,” he says. “They were engaged and came down here to get a ring. I’m glad the monument is up because I’m hoping it’s going to help provide a little closure to the grieving families of the fallen, the people we lost day that.”
And it’s doing just that for Jeannie Speed Shone, who lost her husband Officer Billy Speed in the shooting.
“It hasn’t been easy, I’ll be honest with you,” Speed Shone says. “Every Aug. 1 it’s really sad. But I like to see this come to a closure. But life goes on. And I’m just so glad I’m part of it.”
Besides a bigger, perhaps more appropriate memorial to the shooting victims, the other big gift to those who were affected by the shooting were the words of UT-Austin President Greg Fenves.
“The new memorial and today’s remembrance is long, long overdue,” Fenves said. “Fifty years ago, society responded to violent tragedy differently. Healing was thought to occur when we moved on. Survivors did not receive the support that they needed. The campus did not fully grieve before trying to return to normal.”
Survivor John Fox says yes, these words were long overdue – but he’s glad they’ve now been said.
“It’s been a long time but I really can’t fault UT, because I didn’t talk about it for many years either,” Fox says. “It’s a terrible, awkward subject and I’m glad UT has finally done the right thing. And I’ve never been more proud of my alma mater than I am today.”
The Tower clock begin to chime again on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2016 and the crowds from the dedication ceremony were gone. But the hope is this new memorial will do more to remind those on campus of what happened here 50 years ago.