A new historical plaque has been installed by the door of the Ray Martinez Building, a government complex in southeast Austin. The building was named after Martinez in 2004, but that naming didn’t tell his story.
On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman went on a 96-minute shooting rampage on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. He could see the whole campus from his vantage point at the top of the university’s clock tower. On that day, Austin police officer Ramiro “Ray” Martinez was off duty. But when he heard about the shooting, he put on his uniform and drove to campus. Martinez, and fellow officer Houston McCoy, managed to get to the top of the tower. They both shot Whitman and finally put an end to the rampage.
The UT tower shooting was the first mass shooting at an American college campus. In the end, Whitman killed 17 people and injured dozens more. At the time, UT did nothing to acknowledge the horrors of that day.
Officer McCoy has since died. But Martinez is alive, and Travis County Justice of the Peace Raúl González wanted to celebrate his heroism. On Saturday, more than 50 years later, González unveiled a plaque to honor Martinez.
“It’s up to us to educate and pass along our history to the next generation,” González said at the unveiling ceremony.
Very few recognized American heroes have Hispanic last names, which is another reason González pursued the idea of the plaque. He said he felt proud when, as a 5-year-old, he found out that the man who stopped the UT tower shooter was “a man with the last name of Martinez.”
While a mariachi band played for the audience at the ceremony, Martinez struggled with all of the attention. His family says he doesn’t like to talk about that tragic summer day in 1966. Even at the lectern, he deflected attention from himself by speaking about all the people who were not in uniform but who sprung into action to try and save the wounded.
Several elected officials who, at the time, were UT students, also attended the ceremony. Texas state Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo was one of them; so was U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas’ 35th Congressional District.
Over the years, Martinez has been quick to point out that he wasn’t the only officer at the top of the UT tower; there were others. There were also other ordinary young people who took extraordinary steps to try to stop Whitman.
Today, the blood-stained shirt Martinez wore on the day of the shooting is under a glass case for all to see inside the Ray Martinez Building. His wristwatch and a 53-year-old photo of him coming down the UT tower are also there.
In the years since the shooting, many have focused on Whitman, trying to make sense of his actions. But the new plaque is one step in shifting that attention toward the survivors and heroes, like Martinez, who stopped him.
Texas Standard’s 2016 documentary “Out of the Blue,” tells the story of the tower shooting in 1966 through eyewitness and survivor accounts, archival material and more. Listen to the documentary, watch video and read more here.