Steve Chapman

The University of Texas Tower is one of the glories of Austin. The 71-year-old limestone skyscraper rises 307 feet above the tree-shaded campus, dominates the city skyline and, on special occasions like a national championship, is lit up in the school's signature orange. Turn on the PBS show "Austin City Limits" sometime, and you'll see it glowing behind the musicians.

But the building's history is not all happy. In 1966, Charles Whitman carried several guns up to the observation deck and began firing at passersby on the ground. By the time police shot him to death, he had killed or wounded dozens of people and assured that he and the tower would forever be linked.

Yet the university and the city refused to let that be the final chapter. Not only did the tower stay, but the public was allowed back in, though it was closed in 1975 after a rash of people jumping to their deaths. In 1999, after the installation of a shield to prevent suicides, the administration once again opened the doors. Four decades later, the association with Whitman is inescapable. But that is only a small part of what the tower means.

There are lessons there for any institution that goes through a similar tragedy: Be strong. Hold to your own purposes. Understand that this will pass. Don't let a psychopath govern you from the grave.

But none of these was offered by the governor of Illinois or the administration of Northern Illinois University in the aftermath of the Valentine's Day slaughter in a lecture hall on the DeKalb campus. In what must come as a shock not only to the people of the state but the rest of the country, they propose to bulldoze the building and replace it with a new one, at a cost of $40 million.

If the facility were an ancient firetrap, this might be the right moment to do the inevitable. But Cole Hall is a perfectly functional building that, having been built in 1968, is younger than your average tenured professor.

Until now, as The Tribune reported last week, no one thought it needed replacement: "Instead, a $20 million request to renovate the Stevens Building, which houses the anthropology department and theater program, has consistently been at the top of the university's capital requests."

Officials, however, insist it would be unthinkable to use a building scarred by terror. NIU President John Peters said he "made the decision that we had to raze that, we had to demolish that building and replace it with something fitting, something fitting our needs and as a memorial." NIU board chairwoman Cherilyn Murer agreed, "Instincts told you that we cannot have students in this building."


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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