What They Don’t Talk About on the Bell Tower Tour

 

bell tower shooting

(“Yes, kids I did go here when you could only carry around Nerf Guns.”)

Margaret Whitman, Kathy Whitman, Edna Townsley, Marguerite Lamport, Mark Gabour, Claire Wilson, Thomas Eckman, Dr. Robert Boyer, Thomas Ashton, Thomas Karr, Billy Speed, Harry Walchuk, Paul Sonntag, Claudia Rutt, Roy Schmidt, Karen Griffith, David Gunby, RIP.

Ae Padilla

 

I’ll get right to it. I love The Bell Tower. What UT student/alumnus doesn’t? For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by its architecture, its carillons, and the way it stands as an iconic symbol for both this campus and city.

The Tower provides us with so much. It lets us know when our horns win. It gives us chimes to listen to when we walk to class. It has the most beautiful life science library inside of it – something straight out of Hogwarts. Many events have happened in and around out it since construction first began on it in 1934 including, of course, the infamous 1966 shooting.

So it came as a surprise to me when, on my tour of The Tower in my last semester at Texas, I asked one of the tour guides if the rails and extra security on the observation deck were because of the shooting. Their response was that they were not allowed to talk about it.

To say I was perplexed and angered would be an understatement.

I understand how it could be morbid and uncomfortable discussing the 15 deaths committed by Charles Whitman from the observation deck and 2 elsewhere. I understand how the conversation could be considered offensive and might put a damper on the otherwise beautiful view you are greeted to as you stand on the 28th floor looking out onto the Austin skyline. I get that even after 50 years it’s still a very sensitive issue thinking that one of our students committed a horrendous act against his fellow longhorns.

But guess what? It happened.

And not speaking about it makes it seem like those that died are never remembered because we as a University do not like acknowledging that it indeed happened.

As a student I knew about the incident before I decided to take the tour. I had read about it, discussed it with others, and even wrote about it for a paper on school shootings – a subject I have researched thoroughly. But others on the tour, many who were from different countries and spoke various languages, were blissfully unaware of what happened on that observation deck many years ago. Unlike me, they had no idea who Houston McCoy or Billy Speed were. They had no idea that The Tower was closed for years following the tragedy.

Some might say it’s a good thing to not draw negative attention to the University; after all, the murders did occur more than half a century ago and bringing it up certainly reminds us of the ever growing number of shootings that have become almost normal in our country. People might be scared that recalling this particular event is in some twisted way a glorification of the act itself and that we should all just move on with our lives.

But to be quite honest not talking about the massacre is actually the worst thing we as a University can do.

We must acknowledge our former classmates, professors, and Austinites. We must acknowledge the victims of the senseless crime, and we must do it even if it makes us extremely uncomfortable.

While it’s important to mention The Main Building does have a memorial garden which hosts a plaque honoring those killed, it does not have one from where the massacre occurred. This one plaque The Tower does have, displayed where few people visit and placed as recently as 1999, is not enough.

I do not suggest the whole tour of The Tower focus solely on the mass shooting.  A simple line stating what happened might be enough or even a moment of silence might commemorate the lives that were ended too shortly. Perhaps another plaque in the lobby with the victims’ names will provide more awareness. All these things would be more fitting than giving these sixteen individuals no recognition at all. (At the time of publishing this article I have been made aware of a new plaque near “Turtle Pond” only recently erected.)

At the end of the tour walking back to my apartment I had a few questions formulating in my head.

Why does UT think they can eradicate an important part of history? Why do they want to? Have we learned nothing about the horrors of ignoring the truth about sensitive but important information? Why does it take filmmakers and authors who are not a part of the Longhorn family to bring attention to this?

Throughout my four years of education at the University of Texas at Austin I learned that the most important lesson is what coincidentally is printed on The Main Building itself: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

By us acknowledging the truth of what happened from atop The Tower we let go of some of the mystery and the shame that still lingers within us. We accept that it happened and pay recognition to those who helped that day without glorifying the act itself. And we also become open about the mental problems the perpetrator did face as we vow to help others who might be in that position.

We become a University that is proud of so many successes The Tower represents but we also realize that every piece of history has a dark side to it. We continue to be the amazing progressive school that we have always been.

Especially now with campus carry taking effect, ironically on the anniversary of the shooting, do we want our legacy as that great school to be one of rather denial, hatred, and more guns? Are those the answer to the problems we have realized are evident but still have not fully discussed?

I don’t know about you but I think it’s time we pay our respects to the victims and reclaim our Tower.

 

This article was rejected from appearing in The Daily Texan in 2014 and was partially edited in spring and summer of 2016

 

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