Heroes—real heroes—come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, ethnicities, and political persuasions. While many disagree on the precise definition of a hero, I believe it is: one who perseveres despite incredible odds, at great cost to themselves, and does so knowingly. Rita Starpattern is just such a person.

I had never heard of her until a documentary film entitled Tower was released in 2016. The style of the film is not what one would expect, yet it does capture the events of the University of Texas, Austin Tower incident on August 1, 1966 rather dramatically. I was 13 at the time and vividly remember viewing it on the news and reading Life Magazine’s cover article. The incident is one of the most infamous mass shootings in U.S. history.

Charles Whitman began indiscriminately shooting individuals on campus shortly after 1400 hours. The incident would last well over one hour with continued gunfire. Claire Wilson James was one of the first victims struck by a high-powered rifle round. She was pregnant at the time and fell, immobile, to the concrete plaza in 100-degree heat.

Many were struck and downed all over the campus, including Claire’s companion, who was killed. A tall man in a gray suit walked by her as she begged for help and, with a (and unbelievably so) disdainful look, he told her to “get up and quit playing around.” (There is a special place in hell for that guy.)

While hundreds huddled together throughout the campus seeking cover from the gunfire, Rita Jones, a young woman with bright red hair, suddenly ran out to the middle of the plaza and prostrated herself next to Claire, but only after Claire told her to get down or she’d be shot as well!

For the rest of the incident, Rita, who would later change her name to Rita Starpattern, remained by her side. Rita assured Claire that she would get through the ordeal. Claire then relayed to Rita her blood type, along with other personal information. They then spoke of all manner of things, as rounds continued to strike others.

Rita no doubt understood the risk she had undertaken, as she could observe the other fallen bodies about her position, and yet she remained steadfastly by Claire’s side. She never left her position until Claire was retrieved by others some 90 minutes into the ordeal.

Think about that: a young woman with no tactical training, no weapons, and no armor, wearing a light summer dress and carrying a purse, runs out and lies down in 100-degree heat amid continuing gunfire to protect someone she had never seen before. I’d like to think I would react similarly in that situation, and yet this young woman did precisely that! That is a hero in every sense of the word.

One fact that has been reinforced to me over the years is that one never knows how they, or others, will react in a critical situation until they are actually placed into it. There are innumerable examples of everyday individuals who act in heroic fashion.

Those of you in the military or law enforcement roles are expected to act in this manner due to your training. At least this is the expectation of those who hire you. But an individual not similarly trained has only their instincts and strength of heart to rely on when they hazard themselves beyond all reasonable expectation.

One never knows the true strength of others, or themselves, until they are tested in a manner that demands everything from them at a moment’s notice and at great peril to themselves.

It might also surprise you to know that Rita Starpattern was a liberal. That’s right, a liberal. She later became a force in the women’s art movement in Texas and founded Women & Their Work Gallery.

As strange as this may seem, I have known officers who would never place themselves in harm’s way. On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen officers hazard themselves in unbelievable fashion when by all accounts they seemed the least likely candidates to do so. One simply never knows until the seminal moments of truth arrive.

Prior to the Austin Tower event, the term “active shooter” did not exist. It was not a part of the American lexicon. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. Heroes on all sides of the aisle will selflessly emerge during these events. Private citizens, military, and police will counter to the best of their abilities the efforts of those who would do us harm.

Heroes will emerge from the most unlikely places and backgrounds, and will be from varying ethnicities, religious beliefs, and backgrounds. They may be individuals who never thought of themselves as heroes and yet, they will act in heroic fashion to save others.

Search for Rita Starpattern on the Internet, and you’ll find a photo of her taken not long after the incident. In a way, she resembles a smiling Janis Joplin. This was the era when the rebellion against the establishment was really getting underway. I was a bit of a hippie surfer type myself, which was a lifetime ago, now that I reflect upon it.

Back then, there was an innocence that will in all probability never again be realized. When those first shots rang out from the tower in 1966, innocence was lost forever, and yet the bravery of one unarmed liberal woman showed what the human spirit is capable of.

Rita Starpattern passed away in 1996. Others like her are out there, and we are all the better for it.

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