Westside Stories, 6/9/2011 as published in the West Austin News

By Forrest Preece

 

Rita Starpattern

 

I have wanted to write this column on Rita Starpattern for years. Recently, I received a push on that score when I heard from Monika McCoy, the daughter of former Austin police officer Houston McCoy who shot and killed the UT Tower sniper on August 1, 1966.

She said that Houston, who is currently in a long-term health care facility due to a terminal illness, wanted me to do a column about Rita. He considers her to be one of the true heroes of the day of the rampage at the University of Texas campus when over fifty people were killed or injured.  He says, “Rita’s actions that day amaze me and she has my highest respect.”

I was on campus then, but a lunchtime conversation that went on longer than usual prevented me from being hurt. Almost any other day that summer semester, I would have been in the middle of the south mall when the sniper pointed his rifle that direction.

I was spared injury, but what I went through left me with memories that I’ll never shake. One set of images from that day that has haunted me for years is from the footage that Gordon Wilkinson of KTBC-TV risked his life to film. He was taking cover near the south steps of the main building at that point.

(Italics) Anyone with an Internet connection can see this segment and you’ll be able to put this story in context. Just go to YouTube, type in “Texas Tower Shootings, KTBC Special,” and advance the time marker to 2:14 or so. 

In that harrowing sequence of events, two men, then more, run out to the people on the mall who have been shot and start trying to pick them up or help them. Around 2:33 on the footage, a young woman who is seemingly unharmed rises up from the tableau of prostrate bodies and sprints off to the left towards shelter. 

For decades, I wondered who that woman was, why she stayed prone during the shooting, and what happened to her. Thanks to the Internet, which brought me a contact and eventually friendship with Claire Wilson James, the first person shot on the ground that day, I discovered that this brave woman was Rita Jones. That was Rita’s name in her UT days when she was married to Jeff Jones, a radical campus political figure and staffer at Austin’s first underground newspaper, “The Rag.” He became president of the UT student body in 1970.

After they divorced, she changed her name to Rita Starpattern. It turns out that Rita was a talented artist who became a force in the women’s art movement in Texas and founded Women & Their Work Gallery. Over the past few weeks, I have talked with Claire and two other people whose lives were touched by Rita. Here are their recollections of her.

 

Comments from Claire Wilson James, the first person on the ground to be shot by the Tower sniper on August 1, 1966.

 

“My boyfriend Tom Eckman and I were walking from the northwest corner of the south mall towards the east mall when I felt a huge jolt. Tom said, ‘Baby!’” At that moment, the sniper hit Tom with an instantly fatal shot to the neck.

Claire’s first thought was that she had been electrocuted. Grasping for a reason to explain the insanity and the feeling of melting into the ground (the effect of great blood loss), she wondered if there was an invasion from outer space.

 She looked up and begged a tall man in a gray suit who was walking by to get a doctor and help her. He gave her a disdainful look and told her to “get up and quit playing around.” Obviously, he thought they were doing guerilla theater to protest the Vietnam War.

Over the next thirty minutes or so, Claire laid on the scorching concrete trying to stay conscious. By that time, she had heard people shouting that there was someone shooting from the tower. “All of a sudden, a woman with bright red hair came running out from the northeast of me.” That was Rita.

“She knelt down and asked how she could help me. I told her to lie down or she’d be shot, too!”  Rita got prone by Claire and stayed there for an hour or so, talking to her and keeping her conscious. “I told her my blood type and other personal information. Then we started talking about all kinds of things.”

Finally, towards the end of the rampage, some people risked their lives and ran out to carry the dead and wounded people to ambulances. (There were two wounded men in that tableau of bodies besides Tom and Claire.)

When she realized help had arrived, Rita leaped up and ran off to the east.

“I was in the Brackenridge Intensive Care Unit for seven weeks,” Claire says. “When they released me into the general part of the hospital, Rita found out I had been moved and brought me a beautiful painting she had made. I remember how striking she looked with her red hair, sitting there next to the deep greens and blues on the canvas.”

“I really don’t know how I would have survived the 90 minutes on the ground had not this brave young woman risked her life. There’s a verse in the Bible that says there’s no greater love than laying down your life for a friend. Rita did this for me, literally.”

 

Comments from Laurel Butler, who was art and life partners with Rita for 11 years (1985-1996)

 

Laurel says that Rita was a Christmas Day baby who was born in 1946 and that she died of cancer on April 21, 1996. Rita started her life in Dallas but spent most of her childhood in Nashville. She came to UT, where she was an art major and studied Spanish and Portuguese. “Rita was pretty cool about recounting the whole day. It wasn’t until I had known her for a while that she told me some of the details,” Laurel says.

According to Laurel, Rita was trapped by the east side of the Main Building and saw Claire stranded on the mall with the others. When she ran out to help, she saw that the boyfriend’s arms were on top of the wounded woman. Claire kept wanting to move and get Tom’s body off of her, but Rita told her to be still and play dead.

Laurel says that Rita thought that the dress she had on that day helped keep the sniper’s attention away from her and might have saved her life. Rita had some clothes that her mother had sewn for her and frankly, she really didn’t like them. But that day, she needed to do laundry and so she put on an A-line dress that her mother had made which was clean. “It had a big square of colorful quilt work on the front, which would have been a good target for the sniper. But the rest was beige and blended into the concrete surface of the mall. She laid on her front most of the time she was by Claire.”

Laurel says that when Rita finally got home to her campus area dwelling that afternoon, she didn’t talk to anyone. She just made lunch, ate and probably studied for a while.

Laurel surmises that Rita was probably in shock at that point and she had gotten a bad sunburn from being exposed on the mall for so long, so her energy level was not all that high. “But when she saw the footage of herself on the TV that night, she freaked out.”

So where did the name Starpattern come from? It seems that after Rita and Jeff Jones divorced, she didn’t want to stick with his surname or take back her maiden name, which was Murphey, because both of those seemed too plain.

“This was her chance to give herself a name with significance and she studied about it for quite a while. I remember that one of her ideas was way too whimsical – ‘Rebecca Woodpecca.’ She made lists and ran them by her friends.”

After she settled on Starpattern, people would often assume that Rita was a Native American and she’d have to correct that opinion. Laurel says, “If you have known Rita in her later life, she would have struck you as very settled, intelligent and thoughtful – not so inclined to take on a ‘hippie’ name like that.”

Women & Their Work—the organization that Rita founded along with another woman to help female artists get the recognition they deserved in Texas—came about in 1978 after a festival event. “That’s when it grew into being a permanent organization. Rita and her cohorts knew that women were unrepresented in galleries and that they were too often cast in the role of supporters rather than being artists,” Laurel says.

The first physical office and gallery for Women & Their Work was above the Revco Drug Store on the Drag. It evolved into the current location at 1710 Lavaca. Women & Their Work was founded when there were few women in any field getting much recognition. The group put on an arts festival at Laguna Gloria, organized the first visual arts exhibition for women ever held in Texas in 1979, brought the first woman in to direct the Austin Symphony and the first woman to direct a play at Zach Scott Theater. 

They brought Pulitzer Prize winning poets and well known dancers to Austin. And they started garnering national attention for Texas and Austin, which has the sixth largest number of artists of any city in the country. In the mid-eighties, Rita made the decision to hire Chris Cowden to be their public relations director.

 

Comments from Dr. Chris Cowden, Executive Director of Women & Their Work since 1986.

“In 1985, I was in New York, reveling in the energy of midtown Manhattan and working as a commercial loan officer at Chemical Bank, (now JPMorgan Chase). It was thrilling to be there, but my husband was a lifelong Texan with a thriving career in law in Austin. It was obvious he wouldn’t be moving anytime soon.” 

Chris knew that this situation was not viable and that she would eventually have to come back to Austin. Then providence intervened. One night she was having dinner with a friend who introduced her to an acquaintance of hers from Austin who was on the board of Women & Their Work.

“She talked about everything that this organization was doing throughout Texas. They were also helping give Texas a national presence. They were looking for a public relations director and I couldn’t resist giving them a call.” A few weeks later, Rita had hired her for the position. What were her impressions of Rita?

“Rita had a dry wit; she was very funny in a warm, quiet way. She was profoundly kind, but she could be a fighter when it was called for. She could make her case in the strongest way but her manner allowed her to be an effective proponent of issues that not everyone was eager to hear.”

Chris says that it is hard to remember how bad things were for women before things started to change in the late 1970’s. Rita played a big role in Austin, in Texas, and in the rest of the country by creating opportunities for women artists of all kinds to be successful.

“One thing I’ll always remember about her is that she extended herself to so many people.” According to Chris, she was very inclusive and worked all the time, never taking her eye off the big picture. Chris recalls how Rita taught artists how to write effective grant proposals. “There’s a saying about teaching people to fish themselves rather than giving them fish to eat —that was Rita’s method. She had a way of bringing out other people’s strengths. She did it all for others.”

One of her biggest goals was to convince people that art was a profession and that women needed to get paid fairly for their work. Rita thought extensively about how arts organizations could work in a more efficient manner and she put her ideas into practice.

Eventually Rita moved on from Women & Their Work to Art in Public Places and then to the Texas Commission on the Arts. Chris became the executive director at that point. “At Women & Their Work, we support all forms of art,” Chris says.

They have shown over 1,850 artists since 1978, including artists who are now well known, like Kate Breakey and Margo Sawyer. “And we’ve also presented over 100 dance, theater, and music performances. The two major national art publications, Art in America and ArtForum, have reviewed our exhibitions and we were featured on Morning Edition on National Public Radio. Our schedule now features over fifty events a year.”

No doubt about it—Rita Starpattern left quite a legacy – both for individuals and the whole state.

 

A photo taken of Rita Starpattern within a few years of the UT Tower shootings.

 

Rita, as she looked in the later years of her life.