Telling The Story: Fifty Years Later

Austin, Texas was introduced to the exciting new world of television in 1952 when Lady Bird Johnson's "KTBC" signed on the air. 
   
4 years later, a young University of Texas journalism student named Neal Spelce got hired on as a part-time reporter.

"We had huge audiences obviously, we were the only station in town and we carried programming from all three networks," Spelce said.
   
The station soon moved into a new state of the art studio at 10th and Brazos.    

By the early '60s, Spelce began to take the reins of news director from veteran journalist Paul Bolton who was going into semi-retirement. 

And young UT grad student Gary Pickle had worked his way up through the ranks to a photographer gig.

"As far as news in Austin...it was hard to come by.  I mean there wasn't anything spectacular going on," Pickle said.  "As much of our time was spent covering service clubs, flower shows...I mean just whatever they could dream up to make a newscast out of."

But on August 1, 1966, that would all change.

"Sat down and made sure that we had everybody out covering news, made the assignments and then I started preparing the radio newscast.  It was just a normal day.

5 decades have passed since that routine morning in the KTBC newsroom.  Meanwhile, Charles Whitman...engineering student, ex-marine...managed to climb to the top of the UT Tower armed with guns and ammo.  He had already killed his own wife and mother earlier that morning.  And he came to UT to kill more.  News department staffers like Neal Spelce, Gary Pickle were about to find themselves on the most dangerous assignment of their lives.

"I heard on the police radio just a routine call...it was something like 'Unit 254 we have a report of a shot being fired at the University tower.'  That was it...okay," Spelce said.

After sending reporter Phil Miller and photographer Joe Lee to the tower, Spelce wasn't far behind.  He jumped into one of KTBC's mobile units "Red Rover" -- and started broadcasting live on KTBC radio while driving toward the tower.

"Sirens were screaming.  People were screaming.  Gunshots were going off," Spelce said.
   
Meanwhile back at the station at 10th and Brazos, after racing to the fourth floor to get camera gear, Gary Pickle, David Swope and reporter Charles Ward got into a van used to haul equipment - the only vehicle left. 

On the way to the tower, they listened to Spelce describe the danger they were about to walk into.

"Another shot, the sniper just fired another shot apparently more or less in our direction," Spelce said during the broadcast.

When they got to campus, the 3 commandeered a window-office in Batts Hall facing the UT mall.  It was there Pickle captured the picture and sound that's told the story of the shooting for the past 50 years.  Reporter Charles Ward described what he was seeing.

"There must have been a hit that last time...we hear people outside of our building in an area where we can't now look safely saying 'let's help that boy,'" Ward said.

"Every time there would be a report and a puff of smoke would go on, you'd probably notice watching the footage, it jerks.  Because that was...me...jerking because we didn't know what to expect.  As I said this was completely out of our realm of experience," Pickle said.

After more than 90 minutes of horror in the intense August heat, it was over.

"This is Neal Spelce with a bulletin from the KTBC Radio newsroom.  The sniper is dead," Spelce said on the radio.

Pickle's crew went out onto the mall to capture what he describes as the "gory" aftermath of Whitman's rampage.

"Of course this was all black and white film.  And some of that was lost because there was no red blood to see on television.  But there was plenty to see on the scene and it was pretty horrific," Pickle said.

Pickle says another KTBC staffer had brought him a reload of film...a good thing, because he did run out.

"I went into the bathroom at Ransom Center.  Men's room, and I sat on the floor in there and pulled some paper towels out of the canister and crammed them under the door so that the light wouldn't leak under because I didn't have a changing bag or anything I just had to make due.  And the main thing I didn't want to do was expose the footage I'd already shot," Pickle said.

The shooting hit home for the KTBC newsroom.  In the midst of the chaos, emeritus News Director Paul Bolton came back to the station to help with the coverage.  During a radio broadcast, Joe Roddy read the names of the dead.

One of the names caught Bolton by surprise...

"Joe...hold it...hold it just a minute...this is Paul over at the newsroom.  Everyone is interested in that list of names.  I think you have my grandson on there.  Go over that list of names again please," Bolton said live over the air.

It was Bolton's grandson -- and his girlfriend...killed by Whitman while going into the Co-Op to buy books.

"They were maybe 18 years old and killed by a madman.  Well that's horrible in itself.  But to have it occur in the midst of or as part of a major news event and this was one of the primo-journalists in the area, I think it had more of an impact on him," Spelce said.

Later that evening, Channel 7 ran a special program featuring interviews with Austin Police, a civilian Alan Crum who helped take Whitman down -- as well as a chilling report from KTBC reporter Phil Miller who was first on scene and had often found himself in the line of Whitman's fire.

"I was just about 10 yards away when I heard the rifle on the tower and the patrolman fell to the ground," Miller said during the broadcast.

For young photographer Pickle, the sleepy college town of Austin had changed forever.

"I know the word surreal is thrown around a lot now and people use it to describe everything.  But it really was like reality had completely changed in little Austin, Texas.  It had done a 180.  We were living in some sort of an altered universe," Pickle said.

Spelce, Miller, Ward, Pickle...and other KTBC journalists had put their lives in danger for the sake of telling Austin and the world what was happening.

"I don't think I ever lost focus.  I don't think I ever got concerned...I was not concerned about my safety, maybe stupidly.  But I was ducking down, I wasn't standing up being a hero I was just trying to say 'okay this is what's going on,'" Spelce said.

These images were captured half a century ago now.  Neal Spelce and Gary Pickle have been telling the story of what happened that day for just as long...and they're proud of the journalism that came from KTBC.

"How do you react?  Some people may go crawl under a desk, some people may jump up 'What can I do?' Channel 7 had a building full of people saying 'What can I do?'" Spelce said.

"These people, these ordinary people really rose to the occasion.  And I think you see that a lot in journalism, throughout journalism.  It's a calling," Pickle said.

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