Dancing journalism professor leaves to the beat of the music after 10 years

In the middle of her interview, Wanda Garner Cash almost changed her mind about retiring.

But after 10 years at the UT School of Journalism as associate director and professor, the press freedom advocate and passionate educator said it’s time to go. Cash, who loved to dance before every Reporting Words class, has to stop playing the music, and it hasn’t been easy.

“The last couple of weeks, as I drive to campus and think about the end of this time, I get a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes and I have to sit in my car and compose myself before I come into this building,” Cash said.

She got her first gig as a journalist running a clandestine newspaper at her all-girls Catholic elementary school in Laredo. Although she was busted by the nuns shortly after the third edition ran, her passion for the First Amendment did not stop there.

While attending the University of Texas at Austin, Cash did a brief stint with The Daily Texan and participated in other media outlets. Her former journalism professor and mentor, Griff Singer, said he’s kept in touch with her the last 47 years and watched her take her journalism career through a path similar to his.

“It makes you so proud to know that maybe, just maybe, you had a little bit of a role in helping that student develop,” Singer said.

She graduated with a degree in journalism in 1971 and worked as a high school journalism teacher, weekly newspaper owner, editor and publisher. She helped organize Freedom of Information education efforts and pushed for the Texas Shield Law in 2005. For 17 years, she worked for the same news company in three different newspapers and said she saw herself retiring in Baytown with her husband and two sons.

But then, in 2005, she got an email from a college friend, Rusty Todd, about an endowed professorship in honor of her college mentor, Singer. The school looked to hire a professor with experience in Texas journalism outlets.

“When I read that job description, I said, ‘Hey, they’re writing about me. This is who I am,’” Cash said.

During the last 10 years at the journalism school, Cash said she has loved the “lightbulb” moments students have when they realize they have the confidence to become journalists.

Alexa Ura, a 2013 journalism graduate, said Cash had high aspirations for her students.

“She’s this realistic visionary for journalism students,” said Ura, who now works as a demographics reporter for the Texas Tribune. “She has all these expectations as to what you can be doing as a journalist, but I don’t think she thought there was a ceiling as to what we could accomplish.”

Her colleagues said they’re going to miss her sense of humor, strong opinions and great advice.

Students surprised her with a tribute video that brought her to tears and danced away in their last class to ’90s hit “Everybody Dance Now.”

“I’m not a big dancer, but if everyone is going to dance in celebration of Fluffy, then I’ll dance my ass off,” Todd said.