Summer 2012

Pat Cranston: Pioneering professor reflects on her 40-year career at the UW

When Pat Cranston first came to the University of Washington in 1954, she was a pioneer in more ways than one.

The future recipient of the Women in Communication’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Cranston was at the time a young professor hired to work in the then-School of Journalism’s radio-television track.

Pat CranstonArmed with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, Cranston went on to become the School’s first tenure-track woman professor, and one of the first to teach broadcast journalism at the UW.  

But Cranston, popular with generations of students in her dual role as an instructor and as the director of KUOW, then based on campus, was no stranger to technology, or to blazing trails.

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The native of Texas had always been surrounded by radio — the daughter of the manager of one of the oldest radio stations in Texas, WBAP in Fort Worth, she had performed as a child actress on a Texas Quality Network radio soap opera called “Helen’s Home.”

WBAP was owned by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and so Cranston was exposed at an early age to what radio could do.

“I grew up believing in broadcasting,” she says, and in its power to educate and inform.

After college, she spent several years in New York City working for various broadcasters before coming back home to teach a class on television at Texas Christian University. The dean there encouraged her to pursue teaching, and thus graduate school, when he saw how much she enjoyed it.

When she spotted a vacancy at the UW, she leapt at the chance to move out to the Northwest, someplace she had never been before. The hiring committee had sent her a “lovely drawing of the new communication building,” she says, but it wasn’t the facility that motivated her to move so far from home again.

It was the students. A professor friend at the University of Texas had told her that the UW had a “killer junior level of classes” and that students in those classes had a solid reputation for pursuing the journalistic potential of radio and the still-new medium of TV.

She loved the challenge. Since the current communication building was still being finished, she had her office in one of the corner cupolas at Lewis Hall, and got right to work helping to create a curriculum centered on broadcasting.

The faculty, a relatively small group at the time, was composed of men mostly focused on teaching print journalism, she says, but that didn’t daunt her.

"I was reared by a mother who used to say, 'You can do anything you make up your mind to do,'" she says, and that’s the attitude she brought to her complex new job, where she had to carve both a niche for the program and herself.

It wasn’t entirely an uphill fight. Even among the more skeptical male faculty members, she found fast friends, including Bill Ames, and Merritt Benson, a professor of media law regarded as a lovable, if formidable, curmudgeon.

She recalled a story that she heard about Benson.

During a faculty meeting she wasn’t present for, Benson said, “Well, that new woman that we have, she comes in every morning, walks by my office door … she always looks so happy and she has a smile on her face … then the students come out of her class and they’re all smiling and laughing. I don’t think we need to pay her to work here!”

Cranston, with her own quick wit and charming Texan drawl, enjoyed diving into projects with her students, who worked for KUOW and put out daily newscasts and weekly profiles of researchers on campus. And at the end of the quarter, she’d make chili.

In the midst of the madness, she inspired her students, especially women.

One of them, Sunny Sue Kaynor, later told her how when she first walked into Cranston’s classroom. "She thought, 'There’s another strong woman, like my mother,'" a former reporter for the Bremerton Sun

"She was a wonderful role model,” says Kaynor, a journalism major who took several of Cranston’s classes. Kaynor, whose mother was a 1916 graduate of the School, says that Cranston cared deeply for her students.

"She was the most giving of teachers ..." expecting a lot, but giving a lot, too.

It's hard for young women today to know just how tough it could be to be an aspiring female professional in any field at the time. Cranston was one of the crucial individuals who did excellent work and showed what women could do, Kaynor says.

Cranston helped Kaynor get her first job after graduating from the UW, for KOMO. The two have stayed in touch for more than half a century.

One of Cranston’s favorite classes was a course on documentary filmmaking. She says that one particularly encouraging moment for her as a teacher happened one day after she showed a documentary on a drag-queen competition in New York.

“I remember that at the end of the quarter, one of the students who was not one of our majors came up to me and he said, ‘I want to thank you for having the guts to show that film,’” she says.

“'After seeing that documentary, I could see these people as people … that was very good for me,’” Cranston recollects him telling her.

“And I said, 'Well, that’s very good for you to tell me that, because I feel that the documentary enlarges all our horizons.'”

After she retired from department in 1990, Cranston became an avid traveler, participating in a series of Elderhostel programs that took her several times to Europe.

The department is launching a new scholarship in her honor, but she remains modest about her time at the UW, focusing instead on her relationships with her students. Several of whom, like Kaynor, still keep in touch with her after long and successful careers in journalism, all launched, at least partially, as a result of her mentorship and encouragement.

The goal, for her, was always to push her students to think past their own perspectives and to serve society through solid journalism, no matter the medium.

“I enjoyed what I did. I really did,” she says. “I enjoyed it because the young people who I met in my classes were all really exceptional, in their individual ways.”