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John Thomas Pettigrew

Moms Demand Action

I had bought The New York Times to read about an incident in Austin the previous day. It was the front page’s main headline. I joked that I wanted to check to see that Thom wasn’t among the dead. I opened the paper to page three and saw a list of names. I gasped; my body jerked. I lowered my head and shed a tear. When asked if Thom was among those killed, I nodded.

Thom Eckman, age 19, was a close friend of mine. As a youth I’d wished I could find a friend my age. There was a new student at my high school, Thom, who walked home the same direction I did, and we talked. He was one year behind because he had spent a year in Spain with his mother. We seemed to have some common interests, like folk music. He played the banjo when everyone else, it seemed, played the guitar. He was smart and iconoclastic like me but more witty.  Like me his parents were divorced; his father taught English at Bowling Green State University.

Thom was able to skip the high school graduation ceremony so he could leave Toledo to start classes at the University of Texas, Austin. I will always remember his mother’s and my seeing him off at the airport. He was carrying his banjo in its case and walking in a humorous manner, emphasizing his lankiness.

On August 1, 1966, he was the first (adult) person shot and killed from the tower at the University of Texas, Austin. Everybody who knew Thom said that he was a good, bright young man.

It was considered the first mass shooting in the U.S. in the 20th century. It was on the cover of Newsweek, Time, Life, and even Look magazine. There wasn’t another mass shooting for several years.

A few days later, my mother and sisters and I went to Cape Cod. I looked out into the night’s darkness over the ocean and sang softly, “Fare thee well, my ramblin’ boy…”

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