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A NEW VIEW
|AUSTIN - For several generations of students, the
University of Texas tower has cast a long, dark shadow over their campus, ever since its
observation deck was closed two dozen years ago.
The tower is best known for the 1966 sniper attack in which Charles Whitman killed 14 people and wounded 31. It was also the scene of nine suicides. So in 1974 the 28th-floor observation deck was closed.
But when the UT board of regents meet in Houston next month, officials could authorize the reopening of the 307-foot-tall landmark with new safety features.
If they do, the opening would come over the objections of current and former students who still associate the tower with tragedy and danger. Yet, the proposal has many supporters, and it follows months of spirited local debate and deliberations by UT President Larry Faulkner and regents.
Faulkner this week is putting finishing touches on a proposal that could be considered at the regents' meeting on Nov. 11-12. His tentative plans call for installing a protective structure to enclose the deck, with bars that would prevent people from falling or jumping off of the tower. Faulkner also is pondering details such as security measures, hours of operation and whether to impose an admission fee.
Earlier this month, some regents toured the open-air deck and viewed a test section of the enclosure that is being contemplated. With the regents' concerns duly noted, the final design is being drafted along the related plans for security and access. Faulkner said he expects to disclose the package by the end of the month.
"They're holding a place for it on the agenda," said regents' spokesman Monte Jones.
After its opening in 1937, the tower - just 4 feet shorter than the nearby Texas Capitol - became one of Austin's biggest tourist attractions, affording visitors a free and stunning view of the university, the capital and surrounding region. Known as the Main Building, the tower has been the bustling epicenter of the campus throughout its existence.
Its steps have served as a forum for debates and rallies, and as a backdrop for commencement exercises. Once the main campus library, the building's first few floors house top administrators' offices while upper floors store archives. Topped by 40,000 pounds of bells, its exterior limestone walls are bathed in orange floodlights for major sports victories and other campus achievements.
The tower carries so much symbolism for UT that it is the subject of a college course, "The UT Tower and Public Memory," in the division of rhetoric and composition. Rosa Eberly, who teaches the course, penned an essay for the Austin American-Statesman saying the decision process for the tower's reopening is a test of the university's maturity.
"After more than 30 years of institutional repression and silence, UT has been presented with an opportunity to come to terms publicly with one of the most troubling incidents in its history," Eberly wrote.
"More important than whether the observation deck is reopened, the university can show through the openness with which it handles the question that it has, at least institutionally, begun to heal and move beyond the violent effects of Charles Whitman's actions in 1966 and the enduring pain of those who witnessed or were otherwise affected by the several suicides there," Eberly said.
On Aug. 1, 1966, the tower was like a lofty deer blind for Whitman, enabling him to mow down pedestrians blocks away and lay siege to the campus area for 90 minutes before he was slain in a shootout on the deck by Austin police. Unnoticed, in an era of lax security when mass murder was still a rarity, he had managed to take a foot locker full of armaments onto the deck, including three rifles and 700 rounds of ammunition.
Richard J. Kelly, a 58-year-old Austin businessman, was one of the survivors who was pinned down during Whitman's gunfire toward "The Drag," or Guadalupe Street. The horror he witnessed was so intense, it caused him to drop out of UT as a senior, and still bothers him. The notion of reopening the tower gives him mixed emotions.
"How many people have died since they closed the tower? Zero," he said.
When he was on campus for his daughter's graduation 10 years ago, he noticed he still had "a very uncomfortable feeling. I had that one-eye-on-the-tower type feeling," he said.
"If you were there and you witnessed that kind of trauma, it just never leaves you. If I'm on the campus, I still look over my shoulder because you never know. Just think about being in the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle scope," Kelly said.
He acknowledged there may be enough student support and political resolve to reopen the tower, and there may be a way to make the tower a safe place to view Austin again. But he said the campus' history of suicides, more than anything, should be the overriding concern.
"Whatever the gimmick is to prevent people from jumping, then it would be fine with me," said Kelly, adding that those intent on suicide have other options.
"I guess people could go up to the top of Royal-Memorial Stadium and take a flying leap," he said.
One of the last suicides left an indelible impression on Kelly and other students at the time. In 1972, a despondent female student jumped over the observation deck's stone railing, leaving behind her shoes with a suicide note tucked inside.
A chilling photograph, published in the campus newspaper, is etched in Kelly's memory and prompted him to express his concerns about reopening the tower.
"She put her shoes neatly on the wall," said Kelly. "That was the image in my mind," he said. "That was traumatizing - almost as much as being on the campus that day, Aug. 1, 1966," he said.
After the last suicide on Oct. 28, 1974, the deck was finally closed.
Kelly said he disagrees with students who want to counterbalance the tower's possible reopening by creating a memorial to Whitman's victims. "In my mind, that would glorify the Charles Whitmans of the world, and I think the monument is the tower itself," he said. "It's certainly symbolic of academic excellence, but it's also symbolic of evil."
Houston Chronicle. October 25, 1998.
GRAPHIC: Photos: 1. This is the vantage point Whitman had when he fired his rifle, killing 10 of his 16 victims from here and wounding 31 (b/w); 2. Richard J. Kelly, now an Austin businessman, was pinned down during Whitman's 1966 sniper attack from the tower (color); 3. Wracked by headaches and depression, Whitman had a brain tumor, which his autopsy revealed (b/w); 4. Just 4 feet shy of the height of the Texas Capitol building, the University of Texas tower was opened in 1937, quickly becoming one of Austin's biggest tourist attractions. It carries so much symbolism for the university in Austin that it is the subject of a college course (b/w, p. 4); 5. In 1967, a campus police officer keeps visitors out the UT tower's observation deck, which had been temporarily closed. A year earlier, Charles Whitman killed 14 people in and from the tower.; 1., 3. Houston Chronicle file, 2. James Blair / Special to the Chronicle, 4. E. Joseph Deering / Chronicle, 5. Associated Press
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