FARMINGTON — For years afterward, there were literally no words to capture what happened to Claire Wilson James — and dozens of other people — on Aug. 1, 1966, on the University of Texas campus in Austin.
"We just didn't have the vocabulary to describe it," James said last week, referring to the summer day in south Texas when Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old former Marine sharpshooter, ascended the clock tower on the UT campus at lunchtime with a footlocker filled with firearms and, in a span of 96 minutes, shot dozens of people — including James — killing 16 of them before he was shot and killed by police. The incident is widely regarded as the first mass school shooting in U.S. history and is the subject of a new documentary, "Tower," which will air Tuesday on PBS.
"When I was a child, we didn't have the word Holocaust to describe what had happened to the Jews," James continued, explaining how an adequate verbiage for such horrific events only seems to develop many years after the fact. Indeed, James and her fellow shooting survivors struggled awkwardly for a long time to characterize their ordeal at Whitman's hands.
"I know for years afterward, a number of people would just say they were in an accident," she said. "That's what I used to say. We didn’t have the words massacre or mass shooting."
Now, more than a half century later, Americans have no such problem describing those kinds of events, which occur with numbing regularity all over the country. But the UT tower shooting provided a seismic jolt to the American consciousness in 1966, a time when violence on that scale was unknown to most citizens.
Director/producer Keith Maitland revisits that nightmarish day in his new documentary, and it is the recollections of James, among the other survivors that Maitland interviewed, that gives the film its resonance. Now a teacher at La Vida Mission — a nonprofit Seventh-day Adventist boarding academy that caters to Navajo Nation students 55 miles south of Farmington off N.M. Highway 371 — James has found herself back in the spotlight in recent months as Maitland's film has engrossed viewers and drawn critical acclaim.
She has been interviewed by multiple media outlets recently, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Texas Monthly and NPR because of her prominence in Maitland's film, which combines interviews with survivors and witnesses with archival footage and rotoscopic animation.
Painful as the memories are, James doesn't mind talking about her experiences that day, not because she seeks attention, but because she essentially had no outlet for her feelings in the aftermath of the shootings. James said once the shock wore off, the national response to Whitman's actions mostly consisted of trying to forget that Aug. 1, 1966, ever happened.
"It wasn't hard to talk about at all," James said of her involvement in Maitland's film. "I was so glad people were paying attention. I'd had more opportunities than most people to talk about it, but we didn't have Facebook and the internet back then. I was never reluctant to talk about it."
A random target
James was an 18-year-old freshman at UT in the summer of 1966, eight months pregnant. She was having coffee with her boyfriend Thomas Eckman in a campus cafeteria at lunchtime when the couple left the building to drop a nickel in a meter where his car was parked. As they strolled across the campus's South Mall near the shadow of the 27-story tower, James felt what she described as an electric shock run through her body. She collapsed to the ground bleeding from her left hip, unaware that she had been selected at random by a deranged shooter who had zeroed in on her from his perch high above.
It was only much later that she would discover she had become one of Whitman's initial victims, with many others to follow. Seconds later, Whitman — who earlier that day had murdered his wife and his mother — squeezed off another round, hitting her companion Eckman and most likely killing him instantly.
The two young students lay prone on the burning pavement for most of the next hour and a half — anyone who could offer help held at bay — as Whitman continued his rampage, picking off dozens more randomly selected targets across the campus. A handful of passersby finally pulled her and Eckman to cover near the end of the siege. But it was only when Austin police officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy ventured out onto the observation deck of the tower and shot Whitman to death that the assault ended, and most of the victims finally could be assisted.
Making her way back
James' unborn child was killed by Whitman's first bullet, and she would spend the next three months in the hospital recuperating from her wound, having to relearn how to walk. She said that while she suffered from survivor's guilt for many years — a feeling expressed by many of those who lived through that day — she made a relatively quick emotional recovery from the tragedy and has refused to let it define her.
"My sister is a psychologist, and she gave me some percentages that show that certain amount of people get right over something like that, and some never get over it," James said. "As far as I can tell, I just had the mindset to get back into life right away."
After returning to school at UT upon recovering, James moved west, winding up at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She had been raised as an atheist, but it was during her time in the mountains that she developed a friendship with an elderly woman who was very serious about her Christian faith, and James felt herself being pulled in that direction.
Eventually, she would become a Seventh-day Adventist and embark on a teaching career that led her to various stops around the country. She credits those two decisions for the peace she has found.
"That probably really saved me — thinking about other people than myself," she said. "I've had a very happy life. There's nothing like being around kids all the time to keep you chipper."
Telling her story
James found herself back in Austin in the spring of 2013, when she journeyed to the state Capitol to provide testimony during a legislative committee hearing on a bill that would allow licensed citizens to carry concealed handguns on college campuses. Maitland happened to be in town for the annual South by Southwest Film Festival, and a mutual acquaintance put them in touch with each other.
He described the documentary he was planning, explaining that he was going to take a narrative approach to the events of that day, rather than employ a more traditional documentary style. Maitland asked her if she'd be willing to be interviewed, and James agreed.
The two wound up sitting down together several times, and James later introduced Maitland to other survivors of that day she remained in touch with. The director constructed his story around eight people who were deeply involved in the shooting, using the actual audio from his interviews with them and augmenting it with rotoscopic animation that portrays those figures as they appeared physically in 1966, as well as the scenes they are describing.
James has seen the film several times and believes Maitland's novel approach works very well.
"Oh, yeah, I'm definitely pleased," she said. "There are a few things they didn't have perfect, like my dress wasn't the way I described it, but they told me, 'The truth is, we just didn't have the money to work on it anymore.' But I think he did an amazing job, especially considering he shot much of it on his iPhone."
Finding a new home
James has been teaching at La Vida Mission only since January. She was summoned out of retirement in Texarkana, Texas, by her former pastor to take a teaching position, so she loaded up a 26-foot trailer and moved to the Four Corners.
James teaches second-, third- and fourth-grade students at the remote residential school. Even though the facility may lack some of the conveniences that most people take for granted — there is no classroom internet service yet, so James' students rely on a recently donated encyclopedia set for research — she insists she's there to stay.
"I love it," she said. "It's just so interesting. And when God handed out gifts, he gave such gifts to the Navajo. They're such beautiful people."
James and her students, who come to the academy from locations throughout the Navajo Nation and live on campus, seem to have grown comfortable with each other quickly.
"We're really having fun," she said. "One of the kids found a lizard, and we made a habitat for it. It's got a light, and they're feeding it mealworms."
James has shown a copy of "Tower" to her students and talked about her experiences that day with them. She hopes everyone who sees the film is impacted in one particular way.
"I hope people will notice the people around them," she said, explaining her belief that the demons that drove Whitman to do what he did were the result of years of unaddressed, pent-up problems, beginning with his childhood when he regularly witnessed his mother being physically abused by his father. "We just need to step up and look to each other about what's going on.
"I also think, personally, that we could have better gun laws, although I don't know what that looks like, except better background checks and mental health requirements. And I hope that people, when they get involved in horrible things like this, will not carry around the guilt of surviving."
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
What: "Tower," a documentary by Keith Maitland about the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting, part of the "Independent Lens" series
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14
Where: KNME-TV Channel 5
For more information: Visit towerdocumentary.com