My dad, Clif Drummond, gave me this white rose on Monday. He received it at the University of Texas’ Tower Garden Rededication Ceremony. He is one of the survivors of the shooting 50 years ago, August 1, 1966.
He is also one of the heroes. He and his friend Bob Higley, without a moment’s thought, ran toward the shooting to rescue as many people as they could, both on the mall and the Drag. Each person they saved, they loaded into one of the random cars that served as impromptu ambulances that day. The first person they approached, Paul Sonntag, was already dead.
“I had been elected student body president. And so, you know, I think people—I think I—believed that I had some responsibility.”
That quote of my dad’s is from an oral history project of the “Texas Standard” titled “Out Of The Blue.”
This sentence of Dad’s stuck out to me—he believed he had some responsibility. He could have made a phone call for help. He could have hidden and later made a speech. Instead he took off his new loafers, which were slipping on the hot pavement, and ran toward. Not everyone thinks this way.
But police officers do. So do first responders and members of our armed services. Some people hear shots and run toward the chaos, to do what they can.
My husband and I were there for the ceremony, along with my brother, his wife, and their three kids. We bore witness to the stone with the 17 names, victims of the first mass shooting in a public place in this country.
The event was different than I expected. Quieter. Hotter. More solemn. The speakers talked about tragedy, not guns. Claire Wilson James, who lost her boyfriend and her unborn son that day, received a standing ovation both before and after her words. The killer’s name was not spoken.
But poetry was.
Why do we need poetry? For the unspeakable things in life.
There were two lengthy recitations: from John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII” and from Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning.” Donne’s work was published in 1624, and Angelou’s was read at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Separated by centuries, these two had the right words for the day—about a bell:
As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all;
and a rock:
My dad and the current student body president, Kevin Helgren, read the names engraved on the rock, and the bell tolled. They read slowly and clearly. My dad’s voice shook at the last one, Baby Boy Wilson, as it should have. Then there was one more toll for all who suffered and lived.
Dad told me that after the memorial service, people came up to him, looking for contrition. They needed to tell the then-student body president that they hid in a stairwell when the shooting started. He didn’t think they needed absolution. He told them that they did the best they could.
He also did five interviews in 15 minutes. The man is a pro.
And when it was over, all eight of us went out for lunch at Matt’s El Rancho, an Austin institution. There was iced tea with lime, Mexican cola, Mexican martinis, margaritas, all kinds of fajitas, quesadillas, chips and hot salsa. It was the kind of meal out I’ve been enjoying with my family my whole life. Dad planned to pay, but my brother beat him to it.
That’s what you do as you get older, you treat your parents. You say thank you in a way that doesn’t mean much in monetary terms. One lunch does not equal the sacrifice of 20 years of raisin’. Instead it says, “I know I can never repay you, but I can buy lunch.”
The lunch is what haunts me, two days later. My whole world would not exist if my dad had been one of the names on the monument. My brother would not be here either, which means we would not have married our spouses, which means our kids would never have been born.
That’s the peculiar robbery of an early death. It’s not one life lost—it’s generations eliminated. That’s why a pink granite memorial had to be erected beside the turtle pond, below the tower. If every name were written down, not only those lost on August 1, 1966, but also those lost from the years to come, I suppose that even the largest stone on earth would not have room for the names what would be written.