TAMPA — When Maurna Williams first met professor Nancy G. White, she found her a bit intimidating.
"Until you became part of the family,’’ said Williams, a student at the time. "You think, ‘This is a tough teacher,’ but once she wraps her arms around you, you’re part of the family.’’
Students got into the family through a commitment to make something of themselves, said Williams, who now serves as a director with the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida.
Mrs. White died Dec. 12 at age 94. She had taught English and journalism for 59 years, first in Hillsborough County high schools and then at Hillsborough Community College.
"She was kind of a legend at HCC,’’ said colleague Norma Caltagirone, a retired psychology professor.
Mrs. White joined HCC in 1969, and it wasn’t long before her students were winning awards.
White was their champion, Caltagirone said, and always fought for their rights as journalists.
"She was very assertive before assertive was popular,’’ Caltagirone said. "She knew what was right and she was very direct.’’
Mrs. White received degrees from the University of Tampa, University of Florida and Florida State University.
She started in 1952 as a floating instructor in Hillsborough County schools before being assigned to teach English and direct student publications at Hillsborough High School. Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco was one of her students.
"She looked like a student. She looked like one of the kids,’’ Greco said. "She was very nice, always smiling, happy.’’
Early on, even a principal mistook her for a student, asking why she wasn’t in class, recalled her daughter Melissa Buchanan.
Mrs. White kept her age a secret and people were surprised to learn that she was nearly 80 when she retired from HCC, Buchanan said.
She joined the historic Florida teachers’ walkout over wages and school spending in 1968 when she was at Chamberlain High School. The next year, she was teaching at Plant High School when HCC "stole her,’’ her daughter said.
In 2001, she was inducted into the College Media Advisor Association Hall of Fame, the first time someone at a two-year college had been so honored.
Mrs. White was also in the Florida Community College Press Association Hall of Fame and the Community College Journalism Association Hall of Fame.
She gave lectures at Columbia Scholastic Press Association conventions and counted as one of her lifetime thrills sitting on the dais at an awards dinner with renowned broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow.
Born in New York City, she grew up in Ybor City. She was married to Paul M. White, a contractor and educator, for more than 60 years, and they had three children. Ms. White’s Hillsborough High students loved that her husband took her to work on the back of a motorcycle, Buchanan said.
The couple toured Europe twice, once bicycling around Denmark. Each year, the family went to New York to "do the city’,’ seeing Broadway plays and museums. Paul White died in 2002.
"She was very open-minded,’’ Buchanan said. "She was my mother, but she was also a friend. I could talk to her about anything.’’
And she had such an impact on her other kids — her school kids — that a handful of her Hillsborough High students remained friends for life, taking her out to dinner on her birthdays.
Gerard Walen, a journalist and author, was driving a delivery truck in 1995 when he took Introduction to Mass Communications taught by White at HCC. She saw potential in him, and got him a position on the Hawkeye, the student newspaper.
He eventually became assistant business editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and now freelances and edits copy for the Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner. He named Nancy White in the acknowledgements for his 2014 book, Florida Breweries.
In an email, Walen said, "There are very few people on Earth who I can say changed the entire course of my life, but Nancy White was one of them.
"I would say, ‘Rest in peace, Mrs. White,’ but I suspect that even in your next stage of existence, you will not hesitate to give hell to those who deserve it.’’
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected]