AUSTIN, TEXAS —
Monday was a day of sorrow and remembrance for Austin, Texas, police officer Monika McCoy, as it was for many of the people connected to the mass shooting on the University of Texas campus 50 years ago.
McCoy, dressed in her full uniform in the hot sun, hugged and kissed Jeannie Speed Shone, who sat in a wheelchair in front of the Texas Red Granite memorial that contains the names of the 17 victims, including her husband, police officer Billy Speed.
Jeannie Speed Shone was 21 at the time, and had been married for a little more than two years.
"We had a wonderful life, but to this day, it is still hard," she said. "If I could bring him back, I would."
Following in father's footsteps
Monika McCoy was born a few years after the tragedy, but she is deeply connected to it through her late father, Houston McCoy, who was one of the police officers who ascended the tower looming over the campus where a deranged, heavily armed student named Charles Whitman was trying to kill as many people as possible.
Putting themselves at great risk, the elder McCoy, using a shotgun, and fellow officer Ramiro Martinez, using a handgun, located Whitman in the northwest corner of the tower's observation deck and shot him dead.
Monika McCoy now does nightly patrols in the same area once covered by her father, and sees the illuminated tower all the time.
"When I am patrolling my beat, I don't think about it every single night," she told VOA. "From time to time, I think about it. I look up there in amazement in what happened there and sorrow in what happened there."
Her father had already left the police force to work as a pilot and flight instructor when she was born, but she grew up hearing her dad's stories about police work.
"Looking at his old pictures, it was very impressive; it made an impression on me," she said. "From an early age, I wanted to be a police officer."
But she had a career as an accountant and raised a family before entering the Austin Police Training Academy, from which she graduated in 2013 at the age of 42. Unfortunately, her father died a year earlier.
Sharing the story, easing the pain
As the 40th anniversary of the tower shooting approached in 2006, Monika McCoy, still a civilian, helped organize a reunion of the officers who played a role in ending the killing. She said most of them had never discussed what happened that day, even when working together for many years.
"In that generation, of course, they never spoke of anything like that," she said. "They never spoke of their emotions or shared their feelings."
At the reunion 10 years ago, however, she said they opened up and talked about what they remembered, providing fascinating details about how they improvised their actions on the spot, having no instructions provided by superiors to guide them.
The police force 50 years ago was not diverse or well prepared by today's standards. Officer Martinez, for example, told VOA he was one of only four Hispanics on a force of 270 mostly white men. Police officers wore pistols and often had a shotgun in their patrol car, but they had to rely on civilians with hunting rifles to keep the sniper at bay. They had radios in their cars, but no other way of keeping in touch with headquarters or each other.
"For them, once they were out of their patrol car, they had no contact with one another at all," the younger McCoy said.
There were many heroes
She also remembers that her father and the other former officers were reluctant to think of themselves as heroes. They spoke of the civilians who helped that day, not only with their rifles, but by rescuing and aiding the wounded.
"My father always said if there was one hero that day there were a thousand heroes that day," said McCoy. "He was simply a police officer doing his job. He always said he was just at the right place at the right time with the right weapon."
One of the reasons she said she wanted to be a police officer is the example set by both her father and mother in being charitable and compassionate. That is the part of being a cop that appealed to her as well.
"It is not just about going out and catching the criminals," she said, "It is also about helping people, protecting people, being mentors and counselors."
Caring about your fellow human beings, she said, is for her an essential part of the career she has chosen and part of the legacy her father left her.