Changes on Campus: A New Memorial

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.

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Changes on Campus: Campus Carry

Aug. 1, 2016 marked fifty years since a shooter attacked the University of Texas at Austin from atop the clock tower. It also marked the first day that people with licenses to carry handguns can take their weapons onto Texas public college campuses.

State lawmakers say the timing of the “Campus Carry” law on the anniversary of the Tower shooting is a coincidence.

People who lived through the UT Tower shooting have mixed emotions about the new law.

Sue Wiseman isn’t sure allowing guns on college campuses is going to prevent future incidents. “I’ve been there,” she says. “I’ve seen what will happen and I don’t think just allowing somebody to have one is going to make us safer.”

Larry Faulkner says there’s no reason to allow guns on campus. “In the era we’re in now, it’s insane, there’s no purpose to it, there’s no reason to allow it,” he says.

But some are in support of the new law.

“If I was a student on campus, I would want to be able to carry a gun in my purse,” says Cheryl Botts Dickerson.

Ray Martinez is also on board. “I believe in the second amendment, however with common sense,” he says.

Texas is joining eight other states that allow guns on campus, as the controversial campus carry law takes effect Aug. 1.

Now people with licenses can carry concealed weapons at public colleges across Texas.

The change has stirred both comfort and fear at the University of Houston.

Take new student orientation. It covers the basics of college life, including class schedules, academic advising and what to do when students become sick. Now it also covers carrying a gun.

“Concealed carry is you cannot see it. So bottom line is you should not see any guns here on this campus, unless it’s a law enforcement officer,” explained Sgt. Dina Padovan to a crowd of new transfer students and their parents.

All summer Padovan with the campus police has given this lecture on what they can expect from campus carry.

It’s one way the University of Houston has prepared for guns on campus.

State lawmakers passed campus carry in 2015, but universities were given time to draft their own policies. University presidents can create some gun-free zones, but they can’t enact a campus-wide ban or a classroom-wide ban. Public four-year universities have to follow campus carry, while private universities can opt out.  It will impact Texas public community colleges in 2017.

UH Police Chief Ceaser Moore said that he doesn’t know if guns will make campus safer. He’s focused on raising awareness.

“We’re past the philosophical argument of pro or con. We’re at this point where the law has passed, the policy is in place and we’re implementing the law.  That’s what we’re doing,” Moore said.

Moore said that the most visible change will be new signs that mark gun-free zones — places like the day care, special labs and the recreation and wellness center.

“I don’t think that the typical student will see any difference in their college experience because the typical student will not be carrying a gun,” Moore said.

Until now, guns haven’t been part of the typical college experience in Texas. In fact, one survey found that students in Texas oppose guns on campus two to one.

Students who advocate for gun rights welcome the change.

“You can carry within here and everything,” said Aaron Patton, a junior majoring in biotechnology at UH. During the semester, he regularly grabs food and meets friends at the student center. He grew up hunting and got a concealed carry license when he was 18 back home in Alabama.

“To me, that’s nice. I carry most places that I go off of campus. It’s nice to know that I  can come in and I can eat and I can feel safe knowing I have my own firearm on me,” Patton said.

When Patton gets his final class schedule, he’ll check if concealed weapons are restricted in any of them. He plans to carry as much as possible.

“In case something awful were to happen on campus, I’d know I’d be able to defend and protect myself,” Patton said.

Other students find no comfort in that.

“To say the least, I’d say I’m frightened,” said Ahmed Sarraj. He’s a senior and plans to graduate in chemical engineering next May.

“I know in Texas here, everyone just talks about how much we like our guns. But with campus carry, I think that’s the last place guns should be — at a school environment like the University of Houston,” Sarraj said.

Sarraj has to adapt to that concept at the student center, in his classes and where he lives. He’s going to be a resident adviser at the only dorm on campus where concealed weapons are allowed, the Calhoun Lofts.

“It’d be, I guess, alarming to open up a resident’s room and see a gun there and then know that they’re allowed to have that gun,” Sarraj said.

In that case, he’s supposed to walk out and call the cops. Concealed handguns can’t be in plain sight at the dorm; they have to be kept on the license holder’s body or in a secure gun safe.

But concealed weapons are allowed inside professor’s offices at UH. That has professors like Maria Gonzalez nervous.

“I teach feminist theory and I teach queer theory. I teach some fairly controversial topics,” Gonzalez said.

This year Gonzalez might be more cautious with those controversial topics. She might move student meetings to gun-free zones. Gonzalez also wants to help the department’s academic advisers file a request to make their office gun-free. That’s an option under the UH campus carry policy if an area meets certain criteria for a restriction.

“Because we have had incidents where we have had to call security on a student, where, in fact, students have yelled and screamed. You know, they’ve said things like, ‘You’ve ruined my life’ at the top of their lungs,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez has also considered something else. She may get her own license to carry a weapon.

“There’s a part of me that instinctively says if you’re concealed carrying, so am I,” she said. “But then I’m just asking for the OK Corral here.”

She has three more weeks to decide before classes start.

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