Dallas. Baton Rouge. Nice. Orlando. It seems like we can’t go more than a few days without a violent event somewhere in the world. While it’s true these attacks are happening for very different and very complicated reasons – they keep happening. It’s almost hard to remember a time when they didn’t.
But when a shooter took aim at the University of Texas of Austin campus from the top of the UT tower on August 1, 1966, no one had any reference point for such an attack. The Texas Standard spoke to people who were there that day as part of a documentary that will air Monday.
Summer school was in session. While the campus wasn’t as full as it would be in the fall or spring, it was still teeming with life.
Judy Brooks had come to participate in a summer orientation right before her freshman year.
Gary Gibbs worked part time at what was then Capital National Bank. “You had to carry a full load so your draft board wouldn’t come after you for the Army while you were in school,” Gibbs says. “I was able to provide enough hours a year by working part time, but I would also go to both sessions of summer school.”
Linda Adkins was working for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the time, which was located on the 24th floor of the tower.
Cheryl Dickerson was walking around campus. “I struck up a conversation with the ticket agent and he asked me if I had ever seen the campus and I said ‘No,’ I had not,” she says. “He asked me if he could give me a tour of the campus the next morning and I said ‘Sure.’ And the tower was the first stop on the tour.”
Just a little before noon, a man began shooting from the tower at the campus below. Many people heard the sounds, but not many realized they were gunshots.
“All of a sudden I heard this noise that sounded like – back then we had Coke bottles – so it sounded like cases of Coke bottles being placed on top of each other,” Jeanette Lawrence says.
“I kept hearing what sounded like lumber dropping,” Bob Matjeka says. “It was like a clapping sound.”
“Just by chance, that was the day that Scholz’s Beer Garten was going to have some sort of celebration,” Sid Lawrence says. “I don’t remember what they were celebrating, but we commented – a couple of the students – to each other,’Oh, Scholz’s is starting a little early.’”
But a few people recognized the sounds of the shots, including then associate professor Michael Hall. He called 911 to report the gunfire.
“Hello, this is Michael Hall at the History Department from the university campus,” he said in the 9-1-1 recording. “There has just been a gunshot on the main plaza outside the main building and at least one person wounded.”
Hall says it was his war experience that helped put the sounds in context.
“I had been in World War II, and although that ended in 1945, I was still quite conscious of airplanes flying close by overhead, of the possibility of explosions,” he says.
Besides war experiences, few had any context for a mass shooting like this.
“That was a foreign concept back then. People didn’t shoot each other like now,” Dale Dorsey says.
“And it was just so abnormal,” Jan Klinck says.
“There’s no reference point. There’s no, ‘Oh this is like such and such,’” Sue Wiseman says. “There’s just nothing there.”
It came from out of the blue.
“Out of the Blue: 50 Years After the UT Tower Shooting” is Texas Standard’s oral history on the anniversary of the first public mass shooting of its kind. We’ll bring you these stories and many more in a special edition of our show Monday.