April 16, 2007


Until today (Monday April 16), the worst massacre on a US university campus happened in 1966. That was at the University of Texas at Austin, and the killer was a man called Charles Whitman.

Twenty years later, I spent two years working for UT's Computer Science department. My office, inexplicably, was not in Taylor Hall where the rest of the CS department was. Instead it was on the 21st floor of the university Tower, high above the campus. That is, in that office I was only a few floors below the spot where Charles Whitman sat -- on the 28th --- that morning in 1966, surrounded by guns and intent on mayhem. Having murdered his wife and mother the previous night, this crazed ex-Marine spent 96 minutes picking off panicked students on the streets below. Then a cop finally made it up the Tower and shot Whitman dead. In the first such massacre in U.S. history, Whitman killed 14 students and left dozens injured.

Those years I worked on the 21st, I couldn't help thinking of Whitman every time I went up to my office, every time I looked down at the sprawling UT campus from my window. Such tiny figures, I'd think, from this distance. What made this man so horrifyingly accurate, what made him pump bullets so accurately for so long?

In the city for a brief visit three years ago, I had dinner with several Austin friends including my one-time piano teacher. We ended up discussing her friend and colleague Danielle Martin, professor of music at UT and an accomplished piano player. And here's one of those useless nuggets that my mind squirrels away for no discernible reason: Charles Whitman, too, was a good piano player.

I make that connection because in Austin, both Martin and Whitman are synonyms for tragedy. One month before that dinner, Martin had died a ghastly death in her home, so horrible that it still dominated Austin opeds and conversation and brought back painful memories of Whitman. Fifty-six years old, Martin suffered from multiple sclerosis. Since she lived alone, she had taken in Jackson Fan Chun Ngai, a talented young Hawaiian music student, as a boarder. He helped Martin with errands, shopping, and just getting back and forth from campus every day.

Ngai was himself schizophrenic. He was taking treatment at a local mental health clinic, where he would spend a few days at time. On April 20 2004, disregarding medical orders, he checked himself out of the clinic. Nine days later, Ngai called police from Martin's house in Hyde Park, just north of UT and one of the city's oldest and leafiest neighborhoods. When they arrived, they found him standing over her blood-drenched body with a meat cleaver. Calmly, he explained to them that she had a computer chip in her head and he had decided to remove it with the cleaver.

Much as Whitman managed to do 38 years earlier, Martin's murder shattered Austin.

Much as I imagine Blacksburg, VA, is shattered today.


Postscript: A student on the Virginia Tech campus has been blogging about the shootings, here.


km said...

And in the meantime, guns still don't kill people.

I hope the NRA is happy.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - oh, the gun nuts have the answer -- everyone else should have had guns too, then this wouldn't have happened.

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