For the Love of Dinah

James Niesner: ‘I had to prove to myself that I could save somebody else’s life’

August 1, 1966, started out as an ordinary day for 18-year-old James (Speedy) Niesner of Freyburg, but events that unfolded in Austin, Texas, that Monday changed his life. 

James was working as a server during the noon run at the Holiday House Restaurant on Barton Springs Road when he heard about the sniper on a shooting spree at the University of Texas campus. It was shocking news. How could something this dreadful happen in the quiet, peaceful Texas State Capitol?

When the lunch business slowed, Cosmo, his friend and coworker, suggested they go over to the Holiday House across from the university to see what was going on. Cosmo seemed certain that the police would not have blocked the service alley. 

The two young men jumped in James’s light blue 1954 two-door Ford, drove to the restaurant, parked in back and entered through the rear door. Cosmo knew many of the staff, so he and James joined the horrified group of diners and workers peeking through the blinds.

He Couldn’t Just Stand There

Before James saw the bodies, he had no inkling that he would feel compelled to take action that would place him squarely in harm’s way. 

 “I saw the sniper moving from one gun to the next one on the excursion deck of the Main Building clock tower and I saw the bodies he’d shot in front of us,” James says. “I asked the workers if anyone had gone to the fountain to check on them and they said no. Then I asked if I could borrow a shirt. When you worked at the restaurant, you had a white shirt with a small bow tie.” 

After he had changed shirts, they asked him what he was going to do. 

“I am going to check on the bodies.” 

“You’re crazy, Jimmy! You can’t do that,” they told James. Had anyone tried, they likely would not have had the strength to stop the slightly-built Nixon-Clay Business College student because his adrenalin was pumping wildly. 

“All I could think about was, what if some of those people were alive?” James remembers.

Puffs of smoke from the shooter’s rifle hung in the air and the whole area smelled like blood. He hid behind one of the hearses lined up on the street between the tower and the restaurant and watched for an opportunity. Another young man, whom James did not know, joined him, following the sniper’s every move. James darted out to check the bodies, one at a time, keeping low to the ground. The victims were dead. 

When the other man yelled that the shooter was back, James ran for cover behind the Littlefield Fountain wall, but not before a bullet whizzed by his left ear. 

“I saw the bullet hit the wall of the fountain ahead of me and felt what I thought were fragments of stone hit me in the chest. Later, I realized that I hadn’t been peppered with gravel,” James says. 

While the two young men crouched down behind the fountain, they watched a helicopter fly within the sniper’s range. “It was lucky not to get shot down before it turned back,” James says. 

“I told the lad that I was going to check on some other victims, so I hid behind the hearses and watched the sniper. Then I made a run to the rest area that had benches made of cement or stone where students could sit and study. It had a roof and a high wall facing the tower.” 

James ended up standing near a uniformed police officer wearing a badge, who was talking into a bulky walkie-talkie. 

“I grew up with a lot of respect for the law,” James explains. “When I was a kid, my granddad, Max Gebert, would take me to visit Sheriff Jim Flournoy when he went to La Grange. The sheriff would pick me up and put me on his lap.  While they talked, he’d let me hold his pistol, which was a whole lot bigger than my toy cap gun.

“This officer said he had watched me at the fountain. He told me I could have gotten killed. I told him I had a very good reason for doing what I had done. 

“Then I heard that the sniper had the door jammed over the walkie-talkie. The officer replied, telling them to find another way in.”

At that time, a young lady student came running from the tower, carrying books and papers.

“I waited for the right moment. Then I ran out and knocked the girl flat on the ground. I grabbed her by the hand and we raced to the rest area for safety. All the while, she was worrying about her books,” James explains.

“She seemed dazed or in a different world, so I put her in a safe corner and told her to stay there. Next, a young male student came running over the grassy yard just like the girl had. I went for him, knocked him to the ground and then grabbed him and took him to safety. I put him in the corner with the young lady and told both of them to stay there.” 

All at once, on the walkie-talkie, James heard, “We’ve got him. He is dead.”

 Then the officer turned to James and said, “May I ask the reason you risked your life?” 

James replied, “Yes, sir. I had to prove to myself that I could save somebody else’s life because I was unable to save my sister’s.” 

Dear, Sweet Dinah

James, the second eldest of five children, had graduated from Flatonia High School in May 1965. Before heading to Austin for post-secondary education, he was helping his parents, Louis and Gladys Niesner, around the farm. 

James spent much of his free time with his brothers, sister and maternal grandparents. 

On Sunday, June 8, 1965, the family had gathered at the farm tank for a picnic and swimming. When James ran a rusty nail in his hand on the raft that the kids had built, his mother and grandmother decided it needed immediate treatment, so they began walking up to the house. That’s when James heard the screams.

“I knew something was very wrong. I couldn’t ever do it again, but I jumped over a four-wire fence to get back to the tank. My 14-year-old sister, Dinah, was nowhere to be seen. Dinah was a good swimmer, better than me because she had taken lessons, but something had happened.

“I found her on the bottom of the tank. It’s a deep one. I put her on my shoulders and began swimming for shore, but she fought me kicking and I was having trouble keeping her head above water as I swam,” James says.

Almost out of breath, James finally saw the shadow of a person which meant he was near the shore. 

With his last ounce of strength, he pushed Dinah toward the shadow and surfaced for air. James climbed out and was sick to his stomach, over and over again. 

Then he discovered that Dinah had not been rescued after all. He was crushed, blaming himself for her death. If he had only had more stamina, he thought, he might have saved her. His beautiful little sister was dead.

Justifying His Actions

When James finished his story, the officer had tears running down his cheeks. He reassured James that he had done everything possible to save his sister. Then he hugged James. 

“The officer told me to come with him to the tower. When we got to the steps, two other officers stopped me. The officer whom I was with took them aside and talked to them. When they came back, each one shook my hand. 

“When he entered the tower, I was close behind the officer. We turned right into the hallway. There was an elevator to the left. I was standing by the wall on the right side of the elevator door when a gurney with a white sheet over a body was wheeled out. The officer motioned me to come to him and I did.

“I saw the face of the sniper,” James recalls. “Charles Whitman didn’t look like I thought a killer would look. He looked real ordinary. He was a veteran and I guess he must just have snapped. The image of his face is still imprinted in my mind. I didn’t know it then, but I found out later that this same guy had worked for my older brother, Gene, as a teller at a bank’s drive-through location.” 

The Ordeal Was Over

When James went back across the street to the Holiday House, people started shaking his hand and saying, “Jimmy, you could have been killed.” 

James told the manager that he was sorry to have gotten blood on the white shirt he had borrowed. 

When he changed, James discovered the blood on the shirt was not from the bodies. It was his. 

“I put a company towel between my chest and shirt. I told Cosmo we needed to go because I had to get ready for night school. I dropped him off and went back to my apartment where I rubbed a styptic pencil used for razor cuts to stop the bleeding on the wounds. I wanted to keep the blood from getting on my shirt.   

 “I didn’t want to take my washing home and have my mother ask where the blood had come from. I didn’t want to worry her. She was heartbroken over losing Dinah and had high blood pressure,” James says.

He didn’t stay in Austin after he graduated from the accounting program. James came home to Freyburg to work for local companies such as Smith Farms, a local egg producer, and live at home caring for his mother and dad. 

About 35 years after the UT mass murder, little pieces of shrapnel from an exploding bullet that hit him that day began to work to the surface of his chest. James took the fragments to the shop to test them with a magnet to determine that they were, indeed, metal. He kept them as a souvenir for a while, but threw them out in case his mother might come across them and ask him questions he didn’t want to answer. How could he explain to her that he had put his life in danger to try and save people he didn’t even know? 

James lost his dad on Dec. 25, 2014, at 95 years of age and his mother died April 22, 2015. She was 94. The couple had been married almost 75 years. 

“Mother’s gone, so I guess I can talk about this experience now,” James says. 

Then he hesitates.

“But I don’t know if anyone will be interested.”

 

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