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An ivory tower icon in Texas may be saved

AUSTIN,Texas - The inscription across its facade proclaims the lofty goals of education: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Generations of students have received their diplomas on its steps; its bells summoned student soldiers to service in World War II. And its orange silhouette in the skyline frequently announces another athletic victory.

The University of Texas Tower, the geographic and emotional heart of the sprawling campus here, serves as the site of commencements, protests, and celebrations. Since 1937, the carillon bell tower atop the 307-foot-tall limestone structure has chided students on the quarter-hour with a relentless reminder:

Yes, once again, you're late to class.

But the specter of tragedy has clung to this symbolic structure since August 1966, when student Charles Whitman chose its upper observation deck as his sniper's perch in a rampage that claimed 16 lives. Officials closed the deck, which once attracted about 90,000 visitors a year, for two years after the shooting, then again permanently in 1975 after a suicide jump.

Now, the university's president, Dr. Larry Faulkner, prompted by a student government proposal, hopes to reclaim the tower's top deck for public tours and rekindle the pride the tower evokes in students and alumni.

"The tower . . . is the strongest image uniting the members of the university community," Faulkner asserted in a letter to the school's Board of Regents, which votes on the proposal this week. "It is my opinion that we should actively use this icon of higher education in positive ways."

University of Texas regent Martha Smiley, a graduate of the university's School of Law, said she favors reopening the deck as a "healing step." "The tower evokes such powerful emotions," she noted. "It's the thing you want to go home to. You can see it from the interstate, or when you fly into town. People who pass this way are reminded by the tower of the greatness of the university."

As a student, Smiley said she felt a strong emotional bond to the university community when the tower was lit orange to celebrate a football victory. "You felt pride, joy, and connectedness when the tower was lit orange," she said.

Student body president Annie Holland, who approached Faulkner earlier this year with a carefully studied proposal written by an informal committee of students, wants students to be able to share the "absolutely breathtaking view" afforded a few VIPs.

Holland recalls as a high school student in McAllen receiving brochures from the University of Texas featuring pictures of the tower. But as a student, her only visits to the tower have been to its lower floors, which house administration offices.

The new proposal calls for iron grillwork to prevent accidents and suicides, and for careful security. Visitors would be charged $5 to offset costs of security and renovations. Holland said she knows of no organized opposition to the reopening.

The tower supports four gold-rimmed, 12-foot-diameter clocks facing north, south, east, and west. Its 56 bells play concerts for special celebrations such as commencement, held each year on the tower's front steps.

In 1943, when ROTC students were awaiting activation orders, the tower played a special concert telegraphing the news to report to duty: "You're In the Army Now" was followed by "The Eyes of Texas" and "Auld Lang Syne."

For Austinite Sara Speights, who as a student intern for the local newspaper covered the Whitman shootings, the tower carries memories of unspeakable tragedy.

Speights and another reporter were among the first to respond to a lunchtime announcement on a police scanner about a sniper on campus. Speights, now a health care lobbyist, said she initially could not determine the sniper's location because the gunshot cracks echoed so loudly off all the nearby buildings. Then, crouching near a building, she watched as a woman was felled by gunshots, and then, as an ambulance attendant attempting to rescue her was shot.

Speights, who has lived most of her adult life in Austin, believes the tower should be reopened. "We can't spend our lives preparing for another Charles Whitman."

The Boston Globe. November 9, 1998.
Article by: Patricia Kilday Hart

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3 May 1999
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