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KUT Shares Survivor Stories of the UT Tower Shooting

By MOLLY A. CROUCH

We know who he is. We know what he did. We know how he did it. Nearly everyone at the University of Texas and in Austin knows that on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman used the UT Tower to kill 13 people and injure 31 others in the first mass shooting in America.

But what about the survivors of the UT Tower shooting? Emily Donahue, KUT’s director of Journalism Sustainability and Impact, wanted to know.

When she started her project two years ago, Donahue did not set out to retell Whitman’s story but rather those of the victims and survivors whose voices had not yet been heard after 50 years. With the help of Texas Standard host David Brown, associate producer Laura Rice and others from the Texas Standard team, the team created an hour-long presentation and orchestrated two community events.

In 2014, Donahue’s job included interviewing book authors. She held an event at the Austin History Center for local author Elizabeth Crook, who wrote Monday, Monday. The book is an account of the Tower shooting from three different survivors’ point of views and their lives after the event.

“When I was there, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh this is a story that hasn't been told from the perspective of the people who lived through it,’” Donahue said in a recent interview. “Many of the novels written about the UT Tower to this point have mostly been focused more or less on Charles Whitman’s actions, and not so much on people who lived.”

After researching the 1966 event and reaching out to survivors to collect their stories, Rice and the Texas Standard team interviewed them from March until June of this year. They produced “Out of the Blue: 50 Years After the UT Tower Shooting,” a radio documentary, and launched the towerhistory.org interactive website.

“Many people have stories that they don't share,” Donahue said. “Most of the people we spoke with have never publicly spoken about their experiences in 1966 until we reached out to them.” “It’s really, in my opinion, one of the most compelling pieces of radio that KUT has ever produced. They should be commended for their extraordinary storytelling. It’s an amazing piece.”

The first public event was held Oct. 25 at the Austin History Center. The speakers for “Recounting History: Survivors’ Stories of the UT Tower Shooting” included Leonard Schwartz,  a survivor of the shooting; Benjamin Wright, assistant director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History; and Susan Rittereiser, curator of Archives and Manuscripts and curator of the exhibit “Looking Back: 50 Years After the UT Tower Shooting.”

According to KUT.org, they discussed “the impact of this oral history project, what it unearthed after many years of silence, and the importance of gathering and recording stories for the sake of education, healing and historical legacy.” Everything collected for this project will be archived at the Frisco Center for American History at UT Austin.

“My hope with this whole entire project is to provide firsthand accounts, and in this story in particular for many, many reasons those stories were not shared,” Donahue said. “I wanted to create an archive to add to our understanding of ourselves as a community because KUT is a community-based organization and to add to our understanding of history. I think that it’s important for future historians to have almost 100 different viewpoints on the same event; it can certainly add to our understanding of not only history but also of ourselves as a community.”

Ironically, Texas legislature passed a concealed carry on college campus law that went into effect on Aug. 1, 2016 - the 50th anniversary of the shooting. This new law and other mass shootings throughout history spurred the team to assemble their second public event, “Shots Fired: Ongoing Repercussions of the Texas Tower Shooting.” The event will be held at KLRU-TV, Austin PBS, on Wednesday. It  is open and free to the public, but an R.S.V.P. is required.

“Every time one of these events happen -- and there have been many since the tower shooting in 1966, the U.S. sort of looks at itself and says, ‘What are we going to do, and how are we going to deal with this?’” Donahue said. “So we’re looking at that ongoing conversation. [The event] is geared for public input. We're really opening more than half of the program to hear from people about their thoughts about guns, about gun violence, about guns on campus and about gun rights.”

Donahue and her team strive for community engagement and hope to provide an outlet that educates newcomers, students and Austin residents about a pivotal moment in the history of their city and university.

“I think it’s a really important element for people to see, hear and interact,” Donahue said. “I wouldn't say this would change anyone’s perspective, but I hope it leads to people asking questions about their understanding of our history and our society.”

Donahue also produced an oral history called “Forged in Flames” after the 2011 central Texas wildfires. Trial and error in her first oral history cultivated the experience she needed to be more successful with the UT Tower shooting events.

“I set out and planned [the UT Tower events] to have an impact on the community,” Donahue said. “I set out, then commissioned this project to make sure it had a bigger shelf life and impact than the first oral history I did. It was really a powerful process. One that convinced me of people who work in radio believe in the power of the human voice to tell a story, connect emotions and sort of create an intimate moment.” 

Crouch is a freshman journalism major.