The 50-year anniversary of the Texas tower rampage was on Aug. 1, 2016. PBS is airing a documentary on the tragedy, called Tower, at 10 p.m. Tuesday.
The unthinkable has somehow become routine in the 50 years since a young man from Lake Worth lugged a trunk full of guns and ammunition to a perch atop the University of Texas tower and picked off 46 people, killing 14 of them, wounding 32, and traumatizing a nation.
In the 90 minutes it took Charles J. Whitman to terrorize the campus, the world changed.
Mass shooting. Mass media response. Instant memorials to the fallen. Intense scrutiny of the murderer.
Americans today don’t have to reach far in their memories to tick off rampage after rampage: Forty-nine dead at an Orlando nightclub, 14 dead in San Bernardino, 28 dead at Sandy Hook, 33 dead at Virginia Tech. And on and on.
Long ago, on Aug. 1, 1966, this grisly tally was incomprehensible.
Then, the world was a different place.
‘A crime of great horror’
Charles J. Whitman was the eldest son of a Lake Worth plumbing contractor, a St. Ann High School graduate, a 25-year-old architect and engineering student, a husband — and a former Marine sniper.
When two cops shot Whitman dead on the UT Austin observation deck, the scene 27 floors below was silent, broadcaster Neal Spelce told The Austin American-Statesman.
“There was no sound. It was almost as if they were zombies. They were mesmerized,” said Spelce, who covered the massacre live from just outside the sniper’s view. “They weren’t talking to each other. They weren’t hugging each other, or anything like that. … They were just standing there in awe.”
People who were there that day didn’t know how to react – the thought that someone would show up in a public place and kill people, seemingly at random, was foreign to them.
Ten years later, some in that Texas community continued to refer to the carnage as “the accident.”
Though Whitman first directed his rage at his own family — stabbing to death his wife and his mother before heading to the tower — his father, Charles A. “Charlie” Whitman Jr., clung to the term “accident,” too.
On the day after the shooting, the senior Whitman addressed reporters in front of his home on South L Street: “I am the father of this young man who has committed a crime of great horror to this country. I hope you all realize this boy was sick.”
His son complained about severe headaches in the months before the killings. He left a note asking his brain be examined after his death. An autopsy did reveal a tumor the size of a pecan at the base of his brain, but experts debate its effects.
Equal scrutiny fell to Whitman’s childhood and the abuse he witnessed in his father’s home, as documented in diaries, notes and letters.
“The intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description,” he wrote.
Lake Worth becomes center of notoriety
His father’s brutal control of the family was not a secret among the Whitmans’ neighbors.
“I can’t tell you how many times my mom and dad called the police because Charlie was beating his wife, his kids, his dog.
“I still remember the yelping when Charlie beat their little Boston terrier,” Judi Fabris told The Palm Beach Post in 2006. She grew up next door to the killer, then a towheaded Eagle Scout.
Charlie, who died at age 82 in 2001, did not deny the allegations of abuse.
“I did on many occasions beat my wife, but I loved her … and I did and do have an awful temper, but my wife was awful stubborn, and we had some clashes over the more than 25 years of our life together,” he admitted in the years after his son’s rampage. “I have to admit it, because of my temper, I knocked her around.”
As for his three sons: “I don’t think I spanked enough, if you want to know the truth about it.”
Right after the shooting, Charlie Whitman busied himself with planning his wife and son’s funeral, and the shocked community did not turn against him.
A steady stream of front-page headlines nationally kept readers on top of detectives’ discoveries in Austin. In The Palm Beach Post, those headlines ran beside others that described the shooter as “quick with a dare” and “fond of guns” and detailed the return of Charles’ and his mother Margaret’s bodies to South Florida.
The two were laid to rest the Friday after the Monday killings, after a proper Catholic Mass. The reverend at Sacred Heart Church felt obliged to explain why — Whitman, he said, was sick, acting without “sufficient knowledge and full consent of will.”
The pallbearers, including some of Lake Worth’s most prominent businessmen, carried Margaret’s coffin, and noted politicians, including a couple mayors, carried Charles’ flag-draped casket, according to The Post.
At the joint funeral, there were more police and media than mourners because “people feared retribution,” funeral director Edward King told The Post in a recollection 40 years later.
No one knew how to behave, he recalled. No one knew how to handle such horror at the hands of one man.
What remains: A legacy of violence
Monday, on the anniversary of the shooting, survivors and others will gather at UT to unveil the first significant memorial to the victims. It will replace a small plaque installed in 1999. Its unveiling comes on the same day a controversial Texas law allowing guns to be carried into college campus buildings goes into effect.
None of Whitman’s immediate family remains. His younger brothers Patrick and John are dead. Patrick, the middle boy, married and had two daughters before coming out as gay. He moved to California, where he contracted AIDS and died in 1989. The youngest, John Michael, was shot to death in a bar fight in Lake Worth.
Mother and son are buried next to each other at Hillcrest Memorial Gardens off Parker Avenue in West Palm Beach.
Since that day the world changed in 1966, at least 1,416 have been killed or wounded in 86 mass shooting incidents in this country.
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