Fifty years ago this month, Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and began to kill people. I was in my first year of graduate school—it would be the first time anyone tried to shoot me. It was Aug. 1, 1966. I was 22 years old.
I was studying mass communications and working as a television production specialist at KULR, the university’s educational television station before it became a part of what
we now know as our public television system. I would join the broadcast staff later that year as a member of the nighty news team.
I had been on my way to my apartment for lunch when I heard the first shots and immediately returned to the station. The location of the mass communications department was just below the university library tower on which an engineering student had taken a defensive position.
No one knew anything about Charles Whitman then but the nation went on alert for any news about what would become the first attack on innocent people on a college campus.
Sixteen people would die that day.
It’s hard to remember how unusual this was. We now hear almost daily of killings. Our world seems bent on self-destruction, whether by politics or declared and undeclared
The Texas Legislature recently passed a law allowing students to carry weapons to defend themselves at school. Instead of relying on the police, Texas students are assumed to know what to do with guns. The national climate of fear has meant that our politicians and media constantly remind us of how we are always at risk. It soon becomes not just a reminder but a grim reality.
The National Rifle Association seems not to notice—always telling us that it is not people who kill but guns. It’s a specious argument. Defense of the Second Amendment has nothing to do with controlling the sale of ammunition and guns. The men who wrote our Constitution could not have imagined the automatic rifle or the IED. Given their recent experience with the American Revolution, they were afraid of giving too much authority to a strong federal government.
Back to that date in Austin: As I ran back to the mass communications building, I knew that national commercial broadcasters would be contacting our small station and asking for film or television footage of the event.
As I reached the building, Bill Arhos, the station manager, saw me and asked that I find a crew and get a single television camera in a position to record footage of Whitman
on the tower. I found only one other member of the staff, Ken Talbot, to help but we managed to get a single camera out of the building.
These were the days before small shoulder cameras were available. I had to roll one of the large studio cameras outside and position it on the small bridge between the
station and the library tower. My hope was that I would be able to find a man on the tower above me and get footage of him firing at others.
Ken helped me get the camera out but then realized that we were much too visible for comfort and he left me alone to struggle with getting the camera in position and aiming it high enough to cover the top of the tower on which Whitman was shooting. Just as I focused the camera and found the grainy image of a person on the tower, the figure above me raised his head over the tower guardrail and fired a shot at me. I locked the camera in position and left it on to record whatever followed, then ducked back into the studio and out of danger.
Later, when the police had killed Whitman, ABC radio news called the station to ask for whoever had gotten the footage.
The station did not have a communications link with every staff member, but someone found me and told me to join the manager in his office. Someone from ABC was calling to tell me that ABC radio was at that moment trying to get eyewitness accounts, and
since I had been at the camera, they wanted me to tell them what I had seen and done.
I said I would, and in the 60 seconds that followed told them what had happened. The
man on the phone told me he would be mailing me a check for my help and hung up.
A week later, the check showed up in my station mailbox. Twenty dollars for less than a minute’s work—I could see thousands more if I stayed with broadcasting, but I had
already applied to work for the United States Information Agency and decided that I did not want a career as a news broadcaster.
As it turned out, my 28-year career in the foreign service would put me in front of many cameras and microphones during my tours in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Bangladesh and
India. The only money I would receive would be from my salary as a diplomat.
In July 2015, I published my first book, “Journey to Ithaka,” about my diplomatic travels and adventures. I hope to publish a second book this year and a third in 2018. But after
being the target of Greek Cypriot mobs in 1974 and 1975, that day in Austin remains one that I will always remember as the first time someone shot at me.
It saddens me to realize that I no longer want to use my guns. Montana remains a gun state, though with fewer people needing to hunt for food. Now it’s all about trophy
hunting and I have no interest in killing animals for their size.
Having seen what guns can do and having lost a fine ambassador killed in the line of duty, I can only wonder whether I could ever kill a fellow human being.
Dave Grimland has lived in Columbus since 1995, when he retired from the U.S. Foreign Service.