Cheryl Botts Dickerson still finds it hard to believe she's alive to talk about the events of Aug. 1, 1966. That day fate brought her face to face with the man who turned the University of Texas Tower into a sniper's den.
Cheryl was the last person to speak to Charles Whitman and the encounter would change her life. If anyone symbolized the innocence that existed that lazy summer, the innocence Whitman tried to shatter, it was Dickerson.
I was from a very small town, and I was a very shy, quiet reserved person, she said.
The then-19-year-old was a small town girl with a wide world ahead of her. She'd just graduated from Rockdale High and was set to attend Howard Payne College, a place with the same small town feel of Rockdale.
But before she headed off to college, Dickerson took a trip to "the big city", Austin, to visit her grandmother. Fate would twist and turn during the first 24 hours of her visit. It started with the 45-minute late arrival of her uncle to pick her up at the bus station. While she waited, she struck up a conversation with a young man named Don Walden.
And we were just talking, and he asked me if I had ever seen the UT campus, and I said 'no,' you know, and he was a student, and he said 'well let me come by tomorrow and come get you, it's my day off, and I'll show you the campus', she said.
Visiting the Tower :: The date was made, a first date with a first stop at the top of the UT Tower. There, Dickerson and Walden signed the register provided by receptionist Edna Townsley. The view from above that morning was beautiful.
"It was just gorgeous because you can see not just the city, but you can see the hills in the background. You can just see forever it seems like," Dickerson said.
By now, it was after 11:30 a.m. and it was getting hot. Soon the other visitors also taking in the view were gone, and Dickerson and Walden had the deck to themselves. But she remembers a series of maps out on the deck that described the landscape. They decided to examine them. The two had no idea it would turn out to be another fateful decision that provided a chance to leave the Tower alive.
"And in retrospect that's the kind of thing that will send chill bumps up your spine, because had we not stopped and spent another five to 10 minutes, we might have walked in on [Whitman] beating up [Townsley] or something," she said.
Townsley met a gruesome fate with Whitman; she was his first victim inside the Tower. As Dickerson and Walden looked at the map out on the deck, they had no idea Whitman was inside savagely beating the woman who'd welcomed them. Whitman would pull her bloody body behind a couch in the reception area.
High noon was approaching now, and the Tower's clock would soon chime 12 times. Dickerson and Walden had another decision to make.
"It seems like when I looked up at the clock, it seemed like it said it was 12 minutes to 12, or seven minutes to 12, something like that. And he said, 'you want to stay and listen? Ah, no, let's don't.' And that's probably another decision that would have been a totally different result," she said.
Dickerson and Walden decided to reenter the reception area and go back inside. Only this time, the receptionist wasn't at her desk, and someone else was in the reception area. Whitman was bent over the couch where Townsley lay dying. He had beaten her in the back of the head and dragged the dying woman behind a couch, leaving a trail of blood along the floor.
Face to face with a killer :: Whitman was probably unaware there were two people still out on the deck -- and they'd just decided to head back inside instead of waiting from the clock to strike 12. It was a decision that meant they were moments away from a face-to-face confrontation with a killer.
"Well, when we walked in the door the first thing I noticed is I looked to the right and the receptionist was not at her desk. But I rationalized - all this is taking place in 15 seconds - but I just rationalized in my mind she'd probably gone to lunch. And I didn't think anything about it."
The small-town girl from Rockdale also thought nothing of a reddish-brown swath on the floor directly in front of them. It was Townsley's blood.
"And I called Don's attention to it, because we needed to step over it. Again, I rationalized in my mind, 'is somebody going to varnish the floor?' I'm not the type of person who immediately assumes something negative or something drastic or bad, I guess, being small town, somewhat naive. And so we stepped over it and, just as we were stepping over it, I noticed a movement to our right, and we turned that way and a man stood up," she said.
Whitman was now aware he had company. A young couple stood between him and the glass-paneled door leading out to the deck -- and his final destination.
"It was like he had been bent over the couch. And when he heard us he stood up, turned and faced us, and he had a rifle in each hand. Now I know people think, you didn't think anything about that, you know? Well, we're walking, we were talking, we didn't even stop walking. We did not even stop walking, which probably saved our lives," Dickerson said.
A single word seemed to disarm Whitman -- if only for a moment.
"I just saw him. I smiled and said, 'hi.' And he smiled and said, 'hello,' to me as well. And we just kept on going," she said.
Dickerson and Walden didn't know it at that moment, but an elevator ride down the Tower would be the only way to finally escape the man bent on a shooting spree. The problem was those elevators were a floor below, and the stairs leading to them were block by an overturned chair.
"Well, as we started down the stairs there was a chair that was overturned on the stairs. Immediately I'm thinking they want to warn people there is varnish on the floor. You know, it seemed like I found an excuse or a reason for everything -- except the guns -- but the guns didn't stay in my mind. I don't know why I didn't wonder about them. Later Don commented that he started to ask him if he was going to go out on the deck and shoot pigeons. And that's probably another thing that saved our life, that he didn't stop and question him. We didn't stop talking. We didn't stop walking. We just kept going. And we walked around the chair, went down the flight of stairs, got on the elevator, we went down the elevator," she said.
As their elevator whisked them to safety below, the Tower's only other elevator brought two families -- the Gabours and Lamports -- up to the 27th floor above. They were looking forward to the view in time for the giant clock to chime. But Whitman had his own plans. Now armed with a shotgun, he opened fire on the two families on those stairs -- killing two and critically wounding two others. The shooting had begun.
Safe and sound :: Twenty-eight floors below, Dickerson and Walden saw the bodies and heard the shots.
"This man said, 'someone is shooting at people from the Tower.' And we just looked at each other, and both of us immediately "Oh my gosh, that has to be the man we just saw," she said.
Over the years, Dickerson has come to her own conclusions about why Whitman didn't shoot them.
"It wasn't our time. I just feel like there's an appointed time to die, and apparently that was not my time. Now, we could have been shot and survived -- and why that? I don't know. I think the reason he didn't shoot us is because we did not stop and question him. We were not a barrier to anything he wanted to do. We were in and out of there so fast, that when we left it might have been like, 'well, okay what was that?' I don't think he even knew we were out there. I think we caught him off guard. And we didn't stop. And I think that's a big part of it," she said.
When it was all over, and the news media learned of Dickerson and Walden's encounter with Whitman, their picture and story were in papers all across the country -- even around the world. Strangers sent clippings to Dickerson, mesmerized by her experience.
"Even Walter Cronkite had our picture on the evening news and told about, 'now the question has been answered who was the last person to see Charles Whitman and live to tell about it,' she said.
Dickerson still attended Howard Payne College and shared her story with others who wanted to be close to something that seemed miraculous. She said the experience brought her out of a shell, and ultimately into the classroom as a teacher. Now semi-retired in Luling, she's thankful to have touched the lives of some 4,000 students during her career. She feels blessed to have had the chance. But she admits she'll never be sure why she made it out of the Tower alive that day 40 years ago.
"There's no reason why he shouldn't have shot us," she said.
And no true explanation for what would follow that face-to-face confrontation with a killer.
UT Tower Shooting: Interview with Cheryl Botts Dickerson :: www.news8austin.com :: Updated: 7/29/2006 5:00:02 PM :: By: Paul Brown