Austin History Center opens exhibit on UT Tower Shooting

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Louise Grose, an attendee at tuesday evening's The Tower Sniper book launch and reception examines Charles Whitman's suicide letters. The letters are part of a new exhibit at the Austin History Center.
Photo Credit: Briana Vargas | Daily Texan Staff

In honor of the opening of the exhibit “Looking Back: 50 Years After the UT Tower Shooting” on Tuesday evening, the Austin History Center hosted the launch of a new book, “Texas Tower Sniper: America’s First Campus Active Shooter.”

On Aug. 1, 1966, engineering student Charles Whitman went to the top of the UT Tower armed with several rifles, pistols and a sawed-off shotgun and fired at civilians for over 90 minutes, killing 16 people and wounding 31 others. The new book, written by Monte Akers, Nathan Akers and Robert Friedman, outlines the tragedy using witness interviews, examination of primary sources, handwriting analysis and expert testimonies.

“We remember this horrific event that took place 50 years ago in recognition of the victims affected, in celebration of the heroes, both sung and unsung … and for the most powerful reason — because those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it,” said Susan Rittereiser, archives and manuscripts curator for the center.

The three authors discussed why the event still resonates with Austin after so many years and how the team debunked issues originally misunderstood in the wake of the tragedy.

Monte Akers, a former Texas State professor and current attorney, opened the discussion, explaining how the team uncovered new information through the accounts of witnesses whose stories hadn’t been told, such as a former friend of Whitman’s with whom he regularly played poker and the story of an Austin American-Statesman reporter who was at the Tower for the duration of the shooting.

Roger Friedman, a clinical psychologist and social worker, was close friends with victim Paul Sonntag, who died on Guadalupe Street that day. Friedman read an excerpt from the book in which he describes visiting the Sonntag family the night of the shooting.

“I relate to this story both as a psychologist and as a friend,” Friedman said. “While it is impossible to justify what he did that day, it is possible to understand why he did it.”

Nathan Akers, Monte’s son and a 2013 Texas State University graduate, said it was important to remember the tragedy in an era the team characterized as “an epidemic of trauma.”

“A shift is underway, a shift in the right direction but one that took us five decades to get to,” Nathan Akers said. “We will continue to push for the right way this story should be told so we can bring clarity to those affected. Truth heals, and we hope we can contribute to the healing and to how this legacy is perceived.”