Safety, Tony Brackens and the memory of Haruka Weiser

Jan Todd

The shocking and sorrowful death of freshman Haruka Weiser has been difficult to comprehend and will no doubt have lasting effects upon our campus community. I was particularly moved by the message the Weiser family sent to the campus community on Friday asking us to honor her memory through kindness and love, not violence. In that spirit I write to share a story about another UT student whose example might be one we should adopt as a way to honor Haruka and, perhaps, to do what we can to make sure that such a tragedy never happens on our campus again. 

In the fall semester of 1995, I’d been asked by Charlie Craven, one of my faculty colleagues in the department of kinesiology and health education, if I could cover a class he taught in the evening, as he had to be out of town. I was happy to help, especially when I learned that all I’d have to do was monitor an exam. When I entered the classroom in Bellmont Hall, I wasn’t surprised to see a large number of students wearing burnt orange training clothes, as it was a course about coaching theories — one that would appeal to athletes. As I surveyed the room, I noted several young men from the football team congregated in the back of the class and saw that one of the group was larger than the rest, standing at about 6-feet-4-inches.

After rearranging the seating and passing out the test, I wandered around the room until the papers began to be turned in. The large man I assumed to be a football player turned in his paper about halfway through the class. However, rather than heading out the door and into the evening as his classmates did, he went to the back of the room, sat down and waited. He didn’t read, cell phones weren’t around in those days, and at first I paid him little mind as I figured he was just waiting for some of the other players. But as students finished one by one and left, he never moved from his desk. He just sat there, unsmiling, and as the classroom emptied, I began to find it strange. 

Finally, the last student rose from her seat with test in hand. She was short, not particularly athletic-looking, and I remember thinking she seemed like an unlikely girlfriend for the waiting classmate. As she came forward to turn in her exam, the young man unfolded himself from the small desk and approached me as I was gathering up my belongings. “Professor Todd,” he said without preamble, “Where are you parked?” Taken aback, I remember answering, “Why do you need to know that?” He looked down then and replied, “I’m sorry, I didn’t say that right. I’ve been waiting so I can walk my friend  back to Jester Dorm. It’s not safe for women to walk by themselves on campus at night. I should walk you to your car, too.” (I later learned his friend worked as a student athletic trainer.)

Stunned and shamed by his concern for my safety, especially since I’d never spoken to him before, I realized that he might have known who I was, as I’d taught at UT for almost 10 years by then, and he could have seen me with my husband Terry in the varsity weight room where we often trained. But because I was neither young, nor small, nor physically frail in 1995, I protested, telling him that I walked around campus all the time in the evenings and was never afraid. Even so, he stood his ground and answered quietly, “Ms. Todd, I’d worry if I didn’t see you to your car.” 

And so, deeply embarrassed again, I said, “Yes, that would be nice,” and then asked his name. The young woman standing next to him looked surprised that I hadn’t recognized him, and said, “This is Tony Brackens. He’s an All-American.” 

As the three of us walked up the 21st Street hill from Bellmont Hall to Jester, where my car was parked outside Gregory Gym, we passed along the side of the Alumni Center and crossed the same Waller Creek where Haruka’s body was found. I remember asking Tony on that walk why he had waited for us.  He didn’t know me, I told him, and he’d lost at least 30 minutes waiting for his friend to finish her test. He hesitated for just a minute before saying that he’d been raised to believe we “all had a responsibility to look out for each other.” And then he added that he had done it because he hoped someone would do the same for his mother and other female family members if they had to walk somewhere alone at night. 

The walk to my car that evening wasn’t long, but my memories of Tony’s gallantry and basic decency are still sharp. I’ve been thinking about him a lot this week, remembering neither the All-Pro player he became for the Jacksonville Jaguars, nor the successful East Texas rancher he is now, but, rather, the fine, young man who worried whether a stranger and a friend would be safe on a dark night. I don’t know if we can get our campus family to view the need to help others be safe as a kind of “paying it forward” as Tony did — but we should try. 

As a woman faculty member who’s now taught more than 30 years at this great University, I’ve never felt unsafe on the UT campus. Although Tony thought only of my well-being that night, the legacy of his kindness is that nearly every time I leave my office or classroom in the evening, I remember his insisting that he walk me to my car, and that memory reminds me to be careful. In these unsettled times, my hope is that other young men and women will follow his example and ask each other as night classes break up and rehearsals are over, “Hey, does everyone have someone to walk with?” Maybe we can start the healing by thinking about the people who share the campus with us as family and by remembering to “look out for each other” as a way of paying it forward, just as Tony did.

Todd is a kinesiology and health education professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

If you would like to pay tribute to Haruka Weiser, the Weiser family has requested that all gifts be directed to the Haruka Weiser Memorial Fund. Click here for more information.