Historian’s Perspective on
Interview with Author Gary M Lavergne
Robert L. Hall
Gary M. Lavergne was
born in the small Southwestern Louisiana Cajun community of Church Point.
He graduated from Church Point High School with the Class of 1973. Gary
later earned his B.A. in Social Studies Education (1976) and a Masters of
Education (1981) in Secondary School Teaching from the University of
Louisiana at Lafayette, and in 1988, he earned an Education Specialist
degree (Ed.S.) in Educational Administration and Supervision from McNeese
University in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Today, Gary is the
Director of Research in the Office of Admissions of the University of
Texas at Austin. Gary has been published in regional, national, and
international scholarly journals. His book, A
Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, has received
rave reviews from many of the
nation's largest and most respected dailies and trade magazines. In
October, 1998 A Sniper in the Tower became available in mass-market
paperback from Bantam, Doubleday, and Dell Books.
In January, 1999, Gary
signed a contract with UNT Press for the publication of his second book, The
Bad Boy from Rosebud. In sneak previews, Dan
Rather of CBS News has called it "classic crime reporting." It
was released in July of 1999. He does research and writes in his spare
time. Today, he is working on his third book; it will be a narrative
history of the Cajun people.
Gary, after working so long in the
field of education, what made you want to do a story about Charles
Whitman, the mass murderer?
At the time I decided to write the Charles Whitman story I had a job that
required a lot of travel. I used to spend about 90 nights a year in hotel
rooms and I got tired of watching HBO and Spectravision. My first love has
always been history and so I decided to look for something non-fiction to
research and write. Since I
live in Austin the Whitman story was a natural-especially since nothing
had ever been written on that before.
Police Officer Billy Paul Speed gazed at
the deck through decorative balusters
which separate the upper and
lower terraces of
the South Mall of the UT campus. From
the deck, Charles Whitman's
best shot – a
6mm round through the opening between
the balusters -- killed Speed.
a brief synopsis of the day (and the day before) that Whitman went on his
famous rampage in the University of Texas tower.
One of the biggest misconceptions of the UT Tower shooting incident was
that Whitman "snapped" and went to the Tower to kill people. The
truth is that he spent at least two days preparing meticulously for what
he did. On Sunday, July 31st he started to pack a
footlocker with enough supplies to last a couple of days. Later that night
he killed his wife and mother, and early the next morning he went to
several stores to get additional guns and supplies to do his deed. He
reached the UT Tower's deck at about 11:45 am and began shooting and would
not stop until two Austin Policemen killed him at about 1:25 p.m. By that
time he had killed 16 people and wounded about 31.
was the secret of Whitman's fatal flaw in character that led to the
killings, if not the tumor that was found in his brain?
Whitman neatly fits the profile of many simultaneous mass murders. He was
a loser who blamed his problems on other people. He wanted to die but he
wanted to die in a big way. That meant making criminal history-which he
did. The tumor in his brain will be debated
forever-mostly because it cannot be proven that it did not make him do
what he did. But no neuro-surgeon who has ever made himself familiar with
the case, at least that I know of, believes that the tumor could have made
him do what he did over a period of a couple of days.
it possible that the authorities or the campus security police could have
done anything that day to minimize the killings? How about today-what is
in place now that was not then to prevent such a tragic event?
Remembering that nothing like this had ever happened during or before
1966, I think the Austin Police Department responded about as well as any
other comparably sized department. At the time there was no University
Police Department at UT, and possibly anywhere else at that time. Security
men at the time were unarmed and it would have been insane to go after
Whitman without being armed.
produced one book about a Texas killer, you went on to discuss Kenneth
Allen McDuff, in your book, BAD BOY FROM ROSEBUD, published by the
University of North Texas. How is this man's rage different from the story
of the Whitman case?
Kenneth Allen McDuff is more recent, and he was a serial killer rather
than a mass murderer. He had the distinction of being the only person,
probably in American History, to have had two different death row numbers.
Why and how was McDuff let out of jail, and briefly tell us
what crimes he
committed later? How could they
have been prevented?
The story is kind of complicated and that is what the book is about. But
in short, it involved the overcrowding of the Texas Prison System, an
activist federal judge, a persistent family, good behavior in prison, and
possible influence peddling. Once he was let out, he started murdering all
over again, maybe as soon as only three days later. Texas prevented such
things from happening again by constructing over $2 billion of new
an excerpt on your website, you say that McDuff is largely the reason that
the Texas justice system was revamped.
Explain that very briefly, and what further improvement do you
foresee for the future with the Texas penal and justice systems?
When the people and political leaders of Texas found out that this serial
killer had been paroled, and had at one time been on death row, there were
huge cries to build prisons - a lot of them. The legislature also passed
laws called the McDuff Laws which pretty much
makes parole for murders impossible in Texas.
do you see the issue of privatization of jails fitting into the future of
this country's penal system? Reimbursement to victims of crimes? The death
I think that it may be a matter of time before some scandal befalls
privately run prisons that will become a push to bring them back into the
public sector-but who knows? McDuff's influence relative to the death
penalty in Texas could be debated endlessly, but I think he helped to
bring about the atmosphere of intolerance we have in Texas now; a
convicted capital murder will not get mercy in Texas. There is little
doubt about that.
an American History teacher, do you think history will judge us as too lax
or too hard on our criminals today and why?
It would probably vary according to state. Texas will probably be judged
to be too harsh and other states too lax. Most western countries have
abolished the death penalty.
immediately successful as your first book was, can you tell us what
pitfalls we (as Southern authors) should avoid when doing research and
writing non-fiction projects? How do you personally approach writing on
such large projects as these?
I spoke to a writing class at the University of Texas just yesterday about
that. Non-fiction writers should make attempts to quantify everything they
write. By that I mean that, in the end, the purest science and most
objective, is mathematics. If you believe the death penalty is a deterrent
to crime, then try to prove it with statistics. You don't have to write
boring, statistics-ridden prose, but be able to "prove" what you
say with data and you will stay honest and more objective than most other
Tell our readers about LIVES OF QUIET
DESPERATION and your Cajun background just a bit. What other projects or
engagements are you presently embarking on?
of Quiet Desperation was the first book I ever wrote. I
privately publish it and it is very amateurish, but I am proud of it
nonetheless. It uses my family tree to illustrate the differences between
Cajun, Creole, and other French cultures in Louisiana.
Right now, I am working on a much more elaborate narrative history
of the Cajun people. It is very
difficult to do because Cajuns never established institutions that
historians use to document their stories. Writing about Cajuns is like
writing about the American Indians-there is a great deal of dependence on
archaeology and excavations.
is the most important thing to you about writing a history of criminals,
crime and presenting a non-fiction book to your readers?
I look for stories about crimes that changed our behaviors, like Charles
Whitman, or our laws, like Kenneth McDuff. I tried not to get into the
grisly, but in the case of McDuff it was not possible to stay away from
it. I like looking into what these crimes did to us. That fascinates me.
Visit Gary Lavergne's
website at: www.eden.infohwy.com/~lavergne
A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman
Murders – Now
available in paperback, 1998 - University of North Texas Press.
(Sold out of earlier editions)
Bad Boy from Rosebud: The Murderous Life
of Kenneth Allen McDuff –
hardback, September, 1999 – University of North Texas Press.
Lives of Quiet Desperation
– See website to order from author.
L. Hall, All Rights Reserved