Today, my boyfriend Aaron and I went to the rededication of the UT Tower Garden for the victims of the August 1st, 1966 shooting. Today is the 50th anniversary of that tragedy.
I’ve told a couple of friends about this, but on Saturday, I spent much of my day reading about and listening to pieces regarding the tower shooting. One story in particular hit me very close to home, one I had read in Texas Monthly (a story by Pamela Colloff called The Reckoning) about a 17 year old incoming freshman named Claire Wilson who’d been shot while very pregnant and walking across the main mall with her boyfriend Tom. Both Tom and her baby were lost that day, although Claire recovered and is still with us today.
I didn’t really have any plans for the rest of the afternoon. I’m living out of a suitcase right now, couch-hopping between gracious friends and obligated boyfriends, so I wanted to get out and spend some time on my own. I decided to go to the tower in the early evening. I wanted to see how it felt to stand under the tower and look up — something I don’t think I’ve thoughtfully done since I’ve been a student here.
I walked on the Main mall and stand a little off-center to the tower. There were couples and small families walking around, taking a tour. There were two older women to my left, one standing with her hands on her hips, the other sitting flat on the ground with her legs out in front of her. I was just close enough that I could hear their conversation. The woman on the ground says “And you know, I wonder what I had in my purse that day.”
I stopped, cold. I took a closer look at this woman. It was unmistakable. Claire, the incoming freshman from 50 years ago. Claire, who faced such insurmountable loss.
I started shaking, crying. This woman who I’ve read about, spent all day thinking about, was sitting fifteen feet away from me. I felt like I had to say something, but of course, when I walked up to say hello, I was caught rambling about how unbelievable it was that she’s there, how I was just reading about her that day, how sorry I am for her loss.
She stood, smiling, hugs me, and said “That’s alright. I got to be a teacher. I got to adopt my son.” Claire said she was taking this evening to prepare for the dedication on Monday. She and her friend, Kathy, then spent an hour with me. They spoke to me about the shooting, yes, but also told me sweet and funny stories about what life was like fifty years ago: the girdles the women had to wear, their past boyfriends, and how the tower used to be open to the public for an incredible 360 degree view of the city. Not anymore, of course.
I said I’d come this evening to see the new memorial, and they offered to walk me to it. As we headed over, they asked me about my life (which, by the way, I was in no condition to speak gracefully about). We approach the memorial, which is blocked entirely by orange and white barriers. Kathy, without a second thought, moves one barrier aside and we walk through. We sit, reading the memorial, as Claire thoughtfully touches each name.
Claire was quiet for a moment. “You know, he had such a hard time, Whitman. He was the youngest decorated Eagle scout in history. Top of his class. And his father made him feel like dirt. It doesn’t excuse his actions, but it just makes you think. It is, I believe, why he did it.”
Empathy. Genuine compassion for a man who inflicted such loss, fifty years after the shooting. Can you imagine that?
Claire asked me if I would come to the memorial on Monday. I said yes.
Today at the dedication, James Bryce, a former student who was on campus just yards south of the tower when the shooting was ongoing, said “We must remember not to become callous.”
Claire didn’t. She stands resilient, warm, and loving, with no trace of harshness or callousness about her. She spoke at the ceremony today of the work done by those on the Texas Tower Memorial Committee to bring recognition and peace to those lost and those who loved them.
I overheard someone say “You know, you can still see the pockmarks at the top of the tower, if you get close enough. That stone never forgets.”
Neither will I, I thought.