In Texas, many buildings scrape the sky, but there is only one real tower.
It is as Texas itself, this tower: built from cattle and oil money, rich with tradition, radiant in victory, yet not far removed from the sudden and frightful explosions of a shattered soul. America knows the University of Texas Tower not for its glory but for its horror, for those 99 minutes in the noonday heat of Aug. 1, 1966, when Charles Whitman hauled a footlocker packed with three rifles, a shotgun, two pistols, knives, an alarm clock and cans of peaches and sausage to the 27th-floor observation deck and blew the world away, shot by shot, through a 4x scope.
Whitman was the Eagle Scout and architectural engineering student who, at age 25, perpetrated what was then the country's worst mass murder. Before being shot to death by an Austin policeman who reached his fortress, Whitman had killed 16 people and injured 31 more. Why? The answers came eventually: hatred of his father, use of amphetamines and barbiturates, a brain tumor, depression, stress.
Whitman's freshman English teacher gave the best answer to the question. His answer was: because.
Others bloodied the tower before and after Whitman. Four students and a professor used it as the jumping-off point for suicides in the 1940s and 1950s. When another young man leaped in October 1974, university regents decided that enough was enough. They closed the observation deck. It has been sealed ever since.
Now, 20 years after the Texas Sniper, student leaders, some of whom were not born in 1966, are asking the administration to reopen the deck. Members of the Student Senate are scheduled to meet next week with UT President William Cunningham. They have drafted a proposal allowing the 6,000 or so seniors and graduate degree candidates to tour the tower in groups of 15, protected by six security guards -- a supervisor, one at each of the deck's four corners and another at the bottom of the elevator. About 480 students would be able to take the tour in an eight-hour day. Opening the deck would cost an estimated $976 each day.
Is it worth the price? The students think so.
"Every time I see the tower, when I'm flying into Austin and back home, I think, the tower is UT, it is the university," said Hugh Strange, 18, a Students' Association officer from Cedar Hill. "It's big like Texas. It has a lot of heritage. The tragic things that happened there, those aren't the tower's fault. It's been through good and bad, just like the rest of us. We deserve to go up there and look around."
Cunningham is sympathetic but cautious. It would be a tragedy, he said, if it happened again. He was referring to death.
Fifty years ago, as its construction scaffolding loomed over the Main Building, there were those at the university who questioned whether a skyscraping tower was right for Texas. It was an esthetic question, primarily, but a moral one, too. J. Frank Dobie, romantic lyricist of the old Southwest and English lecturer at UT, was the grumpiest about it, calling it the last thrust of an impotent administration.
"It's the most ridiculous thing I ever saw," said Dobie, who saw many ridiculous things in his long writing career. "With as much room as there is in Texas, and as many acres of land as the university owns, we have to put up a building like those of New York!"
Dobie was old-fashioned and outnumbered. Most Texans have found inspiration in the tower, designed by architect Paul Cret, whose other buildings include the Folger Shakespeare Library and Federal Reserve Bank, both in Washington. The tower's 27 stories rise mightily above the campus and capital city of Austin, 307 feet from ground to the four-faced clock at the top.
From the observation deck, one can see past the red tile roofs of the university, beyond the wending Colorado River. The nation's geology, and thus all of life, changes within the sight-span of the Texas Tower. One can see, quite literally, where and how the United States divides East to West, forest to shrub, topsoil to limestone, farm to range. The view is that simple and profound.
The daily routines of the university move to the rhythms of the clock tower. The passage of every quarter-hour is marked by four notes of the chimes. The hour is struck on a bell that weighs 7,000 pounds. The time is visible, audible, from any direction.
At night, especially on weekends, the tower is known to glow burnt orange, the Longhorn color. The orange lights signify a victory for the university, usually for one of the athletic teams, although they have also marked academic triumphs, such as when Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1977, and, that same year, when a University of Texas Press book, "The Book of Merlin" by T.H. White, reached No. 1 on the best-seller lists.
For members of the university community, few things touch so deeply as the orange tower glowing in the darkness. On late-night plane rides home after road victories, the football team moves to the side windows and gazes down and cheers at the sight. "They do it no matter how many times they've won before," said Robert Heard, a former Associated Press reporter who covers Texas football. "It is something special every time."
The tower is something special for Heard every time, too. He was in the State Capitol at 11:57 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1966, when a colleague's wife called the AP office there and reported that someone was shooting from atop the Texas Tower. Heard reached the campus by 12:05, just as two highway patrolmen were pulling up on the north side of 24th Street. Whitman was shooting all around the tower, hitting people in every direction.
Heard wanted to get as close as possible. The distance from the side of his car to the nearest protection, the biological sciences building, was 26 yards. Heard ran for it. A few yards from safety, Whitman hit him with a bullet from a 6 mm deer rifle. His right shoulder was blown to pieces. Blood gushed over his white shirt. Four young men dragged him behind the trunk of a Studebaker. For the next 24 hours, Heard drifted in and out of consciousness.
He remembers the noises of the hospital, the bandages, the smells. He remembers the nightmares after the shooting. In them, Heard would be looking through a high-powered telescopic sight. He would focus on a target so precise that he could see crosshairs on its chest. Then he would awaken in fright. That was his chest.
"There was a time when I couldn't pass the tower without thinking about it," Heard said recently. "Now it depends on my mood. The tower is a powerful symbol. It is a powerful symbol. There is that sense at night of something ominous about it, a spookiness. But if there is a tower, and the tower has a magnificent view, people should be up there looking. When I see a hill, something in me says go. I love the view from a hill. I love the view from the top of that tower."