July 27 2016 01:20 PM

Rest in peace

Tom as he appeared in the 1964 yearbook in his sophomore year. An obituary in the student newspaper two years later described him as "highly aware and critical of the absurdities of human life, which he enjoyed lampooning with a deft and witty touch. ... Beyond all these things, Tom was simply a good person, a good friend to have, and we will miss him."
Courtesy Photo

The ride up the elevator is swift — 20 seconds, one second per floor. Then three flights to the waiting room. The door to the observation deck is heavy. The carillon, the biggest in Texas, is above. In the distance is downtown Austin. I am interested in what is below.

Somewhere down there on the University of Texas campus, Tom Eckman was murdered 50 years ago this Monday. Tom, my best friend from high school.

***

I don’t remember how Tom and I became friends. I was a year ahead of him at Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo. It wasn’t through sports. I was unathletic, and he could care less. His mind was on books, music and girls; mine on books and trying to figure out my sexual orientation. Shades of City Pulse, we started an alternative newspaper together, calling it The Machete, because the school paper’s name was The Tomahawk (more recently The Maverick). Our paper gave the finger to teachers, faculty and other students alike. His writing was far funnier and more subtle than mine.

Tom lived with his mother, Mary, in an old apartment building across from the Toledo Museum of Art near downtown, far in more than just distance from my parents’ suburban home. Books were everywhere, music always on. His guitar was in his hands or nearby.

His parents were divorced, his dad an English professor at Bowling Green State University. Mary struggled to make ends meet, working with welfare cases at a local hospital. Tom resented his absent father. He called him Fred, and not unusually preceded it with an expletive. I recall only meeting Fred once, when Tom and Mary took me along to party at his place. Fred couldn’t have been more charming, the very picture of the avuncular English professor in his cottagey near-campus home also full of books. Mary stayed behind, giving Tom the keys to her Volkswagen Beetle. He had never driven a stick before, but Tom got us back to Toledo, grinding the gears at every start.

When Tom went off to UT, where his dad had also taught, Mary went with him, working as a VISTA volunteer. After he was murdered, she sought and received a transfer to New York City. There she continued her work with the poor, rising to run a day-care program that served 6,000 people. “I was not going to be defeated by it,” she told a reporter for a story about how she had dealt with her tragedy.

Tom’s senior year, Fred wouldn’t pay the tuition for him at our private school, so Tom transferred to a tough inner-city school, Scott High, where I’d have gone had my parents not white-flighted our Old West End home. Our friendship had already taken a hit — as student council president, I was proctoring the library, and his girlfriend, Michael Ashley, had violated the code of silence one too many times. I gave her detention. Tom, who had worked hard for me to win that election — I was pitted against the school’s most popular upperclassman, so our strategy was to pander to the underclassmen — thought I had gotten too big for my britches. Then I was off to college. I’d see Tom on breaks, but it wasn’t the same.

***

Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Whitman climbed the tower at UT that morning, having already killed his wife and mother. A former Marine with a Sharpshooter’s Badge, Whitman, armed with pistols and rifles, barricaded himself and began his shooting spree. Tom was his second victim. In his book “A Sniper in the Tower,” Gary M. LaVergne describes Tom and his girlfriend, Claire M. Wilson, as being children of the 1960s and members reportedly of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society. Claire was eight months’ pregnant with a boy (not, as I understand it, fathered by Tom).

Looking down on her from a fortress 231 feet, Whitman pulled the trigger. With his four-power scope he would have clearly seen her advanced state of pregnancy. As if to define the monster he had become, he chose the youngest life as his first victim from the deck. …

“Help me! Somebody help me!” screamed Claire Wilson as she fell to the searing concrete heated by ninety-eight degrees of relentless sunshine. …

Her baby died instantly. Immediately, Thomas Eckman knelt, reached out and asked her what was wrong. Before she could answer, a 6mm round entered his back left shoulder just below the neck, Given the trajectory, the bullet entered and fatally damaged the internal thoracic area. Eckman died instantly and fell on his critically injured girlfriend. Many of his friends knew Thomas Eckman to be a “gentle and affectionate boy” and were convinced that he died trying to shield Claire.

The author outside the University of Texas Tower earlier this month.
Jana Birchum/Courtesy Austin Chronicle

***

I was back home in Toledo that summer from my first college year, working as a copy boy at The Blade, an afternoon newspaper. Events in Austin unfolded on our cycle that Monday (as Aug. 1 also is this year). As our midafternoon deadline approached, I was ordered to the wire room to rip copy on the shootings and run it to the desk. I was excited to be part of an important story. Ten bells rang on The Associated Press teletype machine, signaling a “bulletin.” It was the first list of fatalities. I tore it off and hustled to the newsroom, on the way glancing at the names. I stopped. Thomas F. Eckman. Eckman. Tom.

I handed the list to an editor. I told him I know a Tom Eckman from Toledo who’s a student at UT.

I called friends. We gathered to watch the evening news. They showed a picture of Tom. I felt a stab in my heart. A pain I hadn't felt before or since.

***

Two Austin policemen finally got onto the observation deck and killed Whitman. By then he had murdered 16 and wounded at least 31. (Another victim was a former University of Toledo graduate student.) It was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. It was at first inexplicable in a country that despite the turbulent ‘60s had not seen the gun violence we know today. When an autopsy revealed that Whitman had had a brain tumor, the nation was relieved.

The family brought Tom’s body back to Ohio. The funeral was in tiny Ottawa, Ohio, more than hour south of Toledo. Friends and I traveled there in a small caravan. The family’s Catholic Church was closed for renovation, so the funeral was mounted on the same stage where the annual musical comedy was performed. It was my first High Mass. As incense drifted toward us, I remember thinking how much fun Tom would have had cracking sardonic jokes about this spectacle. When it ended, all but one of us lacked the stomach to go to Saints Peter and Paul Cemetery for the burial.

I also couldn’t bring myself to go to Austin over the next five decades, despite visiting many other places in Texas. But when a newspaper conference came up Austin close to the 50th anniversary, I decided to go.

The second evening, I toured the tower with a couple of dozen others. “The Eyes of Texas” played on the carillon. For 20 minutes or so, we quietly circled the tower. Back inside, I engaged a campus police officer, telling him I was there because of what had happened to my friend 50 years ago. “He’s a legend,” the officer responded, referring to what I too had long believed, that Tom had died saving a pregnant woman.

Two student guides offered a brief history of the building. No mention of what I had come there for. No call for questions. Taking him aside, I asked one guide why he hadn’t even mentioned Whitman. Nearly whispering, he said: “The president of the university has forbidden it.” Seeing I was taken aback, he volunteered, “There is evidence of it.”

Back outside, he glanced up. Above the door, a chunk of concrete was missing. Other holes had been filled in. They were bullet holes from unsuccessful marksmen trying to stop the shooting.

Some high schoolers in my tour group had returned to the observation deck. I asked them if they had ever heard of Charles Whitman. “My aunt who went here told me about him,” one said. Was it taught in Texas history? They all nodded no.

Back on the ground, I asked if there was a memorial. I was directed to the nearby Turtle Pond. There I read a plaque about its ecological significance. I walked around the pond. I saw no memorial.

When I returned to Lansing, I emailed UT’s chief information officer to ask if there were a ban and a memorial. A spokeswoman responded that the tour guide was mistaken and assured me that neither the current nor previous president had declared any such prohibition. She said there was indeed a memorial and that I must have missed it, which I apparently did, as did a local photographer who was with me. A story in the Austin American-Statesmen last March said there was a “small plaque” near the pond. The story announced that alumni from 50 years ago were working to create a larger memorial to be dedicated on the 50th anniversary. “Most of us who have been involved in this have been very upset,” it quoted an Austin lawyer, Jim Bryce, a UT alumnus who was there that day 50 years back. “It seems pretty clear the university was avoiding the issue.”

What is also clear is that Monday will mark not just the 50th anniversary of Whitman’s rampage and Tom’s death, but also the effective date of a bill passed by the Texas Legislature. The measure will allow guns to be carried into college campus buildings in the state.

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