Once considered a beacon of inspiration, a call to tourists and natives alike to gaze upon Austin’s skyline, that all changed on August 1, 1966. On that summer day, a gunman with an intricate plan to kill as many people as possible shot hapless students, professors and civilians 28 stories below.
At the end of the slaughter from the University of Texas Austin Tower, he had killed 14 people (including an unborn baby), and wounded more than 30 others. He was shot and killed in the tower after holding the campus hostage to his gunfire for more than an hour and a half.
Since that day — one that whispered the beginning of mass shootings in the United States though none followed until decades later — for some people the tower carries them back to that terrifying incident every time they glance upwards.
“Any time I look at the University of Texas Tower, I automatically look to make sure there’s nobody up there,” said Forrest Preece, who witnessed the shooting when he was a 20-year-old student. “Every time I see it, I relive that day.”
Preece, 72, who worked in the advertising field in Austin for many years, said the shooting changed him.
“I will say there hasn’t been a day in the last 53 years or whatever it is here that I haven’t thought about it,” said Preece, who said he has read everything he could find about the event, has talked with other people who were there that day, and has met with many survivors and relatives of the victims.
Brenda Bell, a longtime journalist for the American Statesman and a 20-year-old student who witnessed the Tower shooting from a classroom window, agreed that Monday in 1966 changed the significance of the Tower for those who were there.
“We never, we never, never, never look at the Tower without thinking about that. You know, it’s impossible,” said Bell, 73. “But for most people now, I don’t think it’s in their mind. I think it’s just, you know, the remnant population that’s left that was there. [For them], that will never be gone.”
Neal Spelce reported from the scene that day for the radio station KTBC. He agreed on the significance of the Tower, which stands at 307 feet and was completed in 1937.
At other shooting sites, he said, there may be a memorial to remember shooting victims, but those are not like the looming building seen from the university grounds and from neighborhoods across Austin, the state capital.
“But here, the tower dominates everything. Everything,” Spelce said. “So it has maintained, that is one of the things I think that has kept the story out there, that equates to surviving — a surviving story.”
Preece, who grew up in Austin, said as a child he considered the Tower inspiring. But that was ruined by the shooting.
“As a lifelong Austin resident, I resent this fact,” Preece said. “My whole childhood, I was full of the expectation of one day being a UT student and enjoying my classes there. Before the incident, the tower was a symbol of hope and aspiration for me.”
Preece said his mother told him years ago that after she gave birth to him, she reflected on the fact that he was born in the shadow of the UT Tower.
“How ironic that the existence of that tower almost cost me my life 20 years later,” he said.
Still, the tragic event also enhanced his gratitude for life. He recalled a bullet literally whizzing past his ear.
“The randomness of the universe landed in my favor that day.” Preece said. “It’s…made me appreciate what I was given through sheer luck that day--a second chance to get out there and make something out of myself.”
While thousands of people have died at the hands of mass shooters in the U.S. since 1966, at the time it seemed a one-off — an unimaginable and never-to-be repeated killing spree. When the Columbine High School shooting happened three decades later in 1999, killing 12 students, a teacher, and wounding more than 20 more people, that shooting became known in the collective consciousness as the first such event. But it was not.
“There was no precedent for this,” recalled Bell of the Tower shooting. She went on to write about the shooting several times on its various decades’ anniversaries. “You know, we didn’t even have a movie. We hadn’t read the book. We didn’t get the memo. So there was no, there was nothing that we could compare this to except a movie that we hadn’t seen. So the shock and all was just universal that day.”
The uniqueness at the time of the evil act was true for journalists, too.
“There was no plan for coverage. Zero. Nothing like that had ever happened before,” recalled Spelce. “Now I’m sure newsrooms have their disaster plan — what to do, who to call, send the word.”
Many heroes emerged on that hot August day in Austin. People pulled the injured off the mall area below the tower, risking their own lives. Journalists covered the event as bullets rained down. One student risked her life by lying on the sweltering concrete next to a pregnant woman — the first person shot, whose baby died from the wounds — just to talk until help arrived.
It was a life-changer even for those who witnessed it from nearby, like Brenda Bell.
“It was this seminal event,” Bell said. “And from the day it happened I was just consumed with, kind of curiosity — maybe morbid curiosity — about the whole thing. And about what other people were thinking, and how they were dealing with it.”
Bell said watching the shooting from the window of an English class classroom influenced her choice of careers.
“It did have a lot to do with me being a journalist,” she said. “I’d never seen suffering like that. I’d never seen someone die in front of me. I’d never seen people bleeding, you know. A pregnant woman lying in front of you. I’d never seen those things. And so I became, I wanted to know more about that. And so it kind of became a minor obsession, you know, through the years when I did become a journalist.”
She took away something else, too.
“I'm not brave,” she said, she realized when she stayed at the window, unable to move outside to help others during the gunfire, feeling like a coward. She remembered watching a student run out to help carry the wounded pregnant woman off the mall.
“It was just so human, and so brave, you know. And so opposite of me,” she said. “He was like this super hero as far as I’m concerned.”
Bell said she’s observed through the years how the ripple effect has impacted people differently.
“What it felt like to me was a ripple. A ripple, ripple, ripple that never stopped,” Bell said. “There is a shore, a far shore, but it never reaches it. It just keeps going.”
She referred to families that ended in divorce partly due to the impact of the shooting, people who swore off guns, and people who seemed unaffected.
“I remember the father of one of the victims. He sold all his guns. He had guns. He sold them. He never wanted another gun in his house,” she said.
But one wounded man had a different reaction.
“He’d been shot,” she said. “And he seemed to go on as if nothing had happened. But other people, you know, there are some people in town who are obsessed with the Tower thing. And if you ever run into one at a dinner party, everyone leaves the room because the obsessive conversation starts.”
Bell said the ripples have now moved on to the children and grandchildren of people who were there in 1966. A daughter of one of the police officers who shot the gunman that day became an Austin police officer.
Bell believes the difference between a shooting and a bad accident is the intent, and the weapon.
“The gun aspect of it,” she said, “I think it makes it different from something like a 30-car crash on the highway, or, you know, a tsunami. I think it makes it different because of the malice involved. You know, and the intention. It’s not an accident.”
Ironically, or perhaps tellingly of the times, for years most people referred to the Tower shooting as “the accident.” That is, if they talked about it at all. For many people at the shooting — and the University of Texas itself — not talking about it seemed an attempt to make the whole tragedy go away. For years, there was never even a marker or even a historical note on campus about the shooting.
Unlike the reaction to the 2017 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that birthed the students’ political activism, the 1966 Tower shooting was nearly swept under the Texas rug.
But not for the survivors.
“I’m just trying to get rid of this ghost,” said Preece.
Mary Tolan is a fiction writer and journalist. Her first published book Mars Hill Murder, a mystery set in Flagstaff, will be published by The Wild Rose Press in autumn of 2023.