Heroes of the First U.S. School Shooting

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Today, we shine a light on ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of terror brought on by gun violence, while simultaneously tipping our hat to the youth now on the front lines of the #NeverAgain movement.

Enough is indeed enough. We applaud you. We stand by you. And to put the struggle for sensible gun control measures in greater context, we offer you the story of the first school shooting in U.S. history...

...52 years ago.

Far too long for this deathly epidemic not to have already been eradicated.

At first, no one realized what was happening.

It was August 1, 1966, one of the hottest days in any Texan summer. Students at the University of Texas at Austin were finishing up their morning classes and making their way to lunch. No one had thought much of the young man in khaki who’d earlier rolled a dolly packed with bags up to the University clocktower. He claimed to be a research assistant dropping off equipment.

At 11:48 AM, Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Thomas Eckman, both U of T students, were walking across the campus green to their car. Claire was eight months pregnant. The two heard a noise like a firecracker ring in their ears. They turned their heads toward the sound just as Claire felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She collapsed to the scalding hot pavement of the walkway just under the clocktower. No sooner had Thomas asked her, "What's wrong?" when the sound of another firecracker rang out. Thomas slumped to the ground beside Claire. Dead.

The era of school shootings in United States had begun.

The collection of weapons brought by the Texas Tower shooter on August 1, 1966.

The collection of weapons brought by the Texas Tower shooter on August 1, 1966.

The "research assistant" dressed in khaki had arrived at the U of T at Austin that morning. His "equipment" was actually a lethal cache: seven guns, including a Remington sniper rifle, a sawed-off shotgun, two pistols, a revolver, and more than 700 rounds of ammunition. Three of these weapons had been purchased that same day at a local sporting goods store and at Sears, then a popular U.S. department store. 

After killing his mother and girlfriend before setting off for the day, the man in khaki toted his "equipment" up the clocktower and barricaded himself on the observation deck. On the way, he killed three and injured two others who happened to cross his path. Once installed, he randomly opened fire on the passersby below.

Within minutes, five more students were struck and killed. Many others were wounded. Some ran for their lives. Still others hid. For 90 minutes, the bullets flew, shattering windows and cracking the cement walkways amidst the screams of terrified students and professors praying not to be caught in the sniper’s crosshairs.

At the center of the chaos lay Claire Wilson, bleeding out on the hot cement, unable to get up from the sticky, red mess. Her baby had stopped moving. So had Thomas. She cried out for the help of a passing professor, but he fled in fear as the shots continued. She tried desperately to remain still, but the burning-hot concrete scorched her bare legs. Every time she shifted them, she braced for the shot that would end her life too.

Suddenly, Claire was aware of a young redhead stooping over her. In a whisper, Claire begged the woman to run and save herself. Instead, the red-haired woman lay down beside the mother-to-be. She took Claire's limp hand in her own. She introduced herself. Her name was Rita. She was an art student.

Rita Starpattern

Rita Starpattern

Rita knew that if Claire passed out she might never awaken again. She had to keep Claire conscious. So she peppered the wounded woman with questions about the classes she was taking and where she grew up. Claire responded to question after question with barely audible answers. Despite the danger, Rita stayed with Claire, out in the open, in full view of the shooter in the clocktower. They talked for nearly an hour while the sniper continued to fire on the students and teachers below.

Finally, two male students, James Love and John "Artly" Fox, rushed out from under cover. They were terrified. They knew that they might well be the next victims of the gun fire. Yet the sight of the wounded pregnant woman dying in the hot sun at the side of her patient Samaritan convinced them to risk their lives to help as well. Claire and Thomas were their friends.

They grabbed Claire, pulling her to safety as Rita followed. Miraculously, they escaped the sniper’s murderess attention.

It took 90 terrifying minutes before the man in khaki was finally taken down by Austin police officer Houston McCoy. By that time, 14 people had died and 35 more had been wounded. It was the worst school shooting in United States history…

…up until then.

John "Artly" Snuff: In a 2016 interview, Snuff said he didn’t start talking about what happened until about 10 years ago. “Nobody knew how to react to mass shootings back then,” he said. “It’s common now. There will be a mass shooting next week somewhere.”

John "Artly" Snuff: In a 2016 interview, Snuff said he didn’t start talking about what happened until about 10 years ago. “Nobody knew how to react to mass shootings back then,” he said. “It’s common now. There will be a mass shooting next week somewhere.”

Since that sweaty August day in 1966, the United States has been bludgeoned by similar episodes. From Columbine to Sandy Hook to Parkland, Florida, roughly 200,000 students have been directly affected by gun violence while engaging in the peaceful act of trying to learn. Survivors, they say, are never the same again.


In the era of rapid-fire automatic assault weapons, people across the globe wonder in slack-jawed shock at a nation whose constitution allows citizens to own and openly carry guns. The right “to bear arms” made sense 250 years ago when the country was new, without an army, and in revolt against unjust ruler at a time when the most dangerous weapon was a single-barrel musket. They ask:

Who really needs a military-style rifle besides a soldier on the field of war?

Why are weapons built to kill people in a lethal spray of high-velocity ammunition available for purchase at department and sporting goods stores? 

Why are they as easy to obtain as a pocket revolver or pistol?

We ask: How many more people might the man in khaki have killed that hot summer day in 1966 if he'd had access to an AR-15? Would Claire Wilson have survived a payload built for the express purpose of ripping human organs to shreds?

Thanks to the bravery of her fellow students, Claire Wilson survived, though her baby did not. She spent three months in the hospital after the shooting learning how to walk again. She left clutching a second gift from Rita: one of her original paintings. The generous redhead who saved Claire's life is known to us today as Rita Starpattern, though Starpattern is an assumed name. She never publicized her heroic actions during the U of T shooting nor did she take any credit for risking her life to help a stranger. Like many anonymous heroes, she simply did what she felt was right in the moment. She went on to live a private life and passed away in 1996 at the age of 50.

But as John "Artly" Snuff said in a 2016 interview, “Nobody knew how to react to mass shootings back then.” “It’s common now. There will be a mass shooting next week somewhere.” And now the kids aren't just talking. They're marching! For their lives.

We are honored to name Rita Starpattern a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero this Women’s History Month 2018. And by shining the light on Rita's heroism, as well as that of John and James, we underscore the bravery of all ordinary young Americans who have been forced to take extraordinary actions in the face of unnecessary threats on their lives. School shootings in the United States sadly did not stop with Rita, Claire, and the man in khaki. Quite the opposite: they have become an epidemic and are now far more common and far more costly than they were 50 years ago. Yet, it’s the youth who continue to lead the way in showing us what true heroes are made of. May the adults hear their cry. Because, indeed, enough IS enough. #NeverAgain

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Who's your #HistoryHero?

Tell us in the comments below, or message us the name of your #HistoryHero here. We’ll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.