Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Mr. Fink, beloved mentor, is dead
I wore a keffiyeh to my first Conrad Fink journalism class at the University of Georgia. It was the sort of thing one did in college, pre-9/11 anyway.
"What's your name?" Fink asked me, in front of the rapidly filling classroom.
I was new to the United States, and certainly new to the American education system. I did not like drawing attention.
"Pratt," I responded.
"Where did you get that?" he asked, pointing at the sort of scarf popularized by Yasser Arafat.
"What were you doing in Bahrain, Pratt?" By now I was squirming in my seat.
"Passing through," I said, just trying to dodge more questions and hoping people would stop staring at me.
He laughed at that, and said, "See me after class."
It sounded like a threat. Far from getting demerits for randomly wearing Arabic gear, Fink really wanted to know what the hell I was doing "passing through" Bahrain. It was the first conversation with a man who would profoundly influence my life.
Fink died over the weekend, leaving a massive hole not just in my life but in that of literally thousands of "Finkites" who adored the teacher who brought out the best in them, made them better than they ever dreamed they could be. At last count, his death was recorded by more than 230 newspapers around America, many of the obituaries written by his "kids." He published 11 text books, but more important, he changed lives.
Fink spotted my diffidence immediately. (I had to look up precisely what that meant after he'd used that word about me and was delighted it didn't mean anything worse.)
He told me I'd never make it in newspapers if I wasn't willing - even eager - to engage people. My problem was that back then I was still vaguely thinking about becoming a poet - for whom diffidence would be perfectly acceptable - or, like every other directionless student of an artistic bent, a writer for National Geographic magazine.
That didn't last. After a couple of weeks in Fink's class I wanted to be a newspaperman. More than anything. He made them seem important, powerful. The people who wrote for them soon became my idols. So he had to teach me how to learn to communicate with people, how to make an impression, how to earn trust.
"Everyone's got a story, Pratt," he said. You had to learn to ask the right questions, and to listen. (He used the flag in his office in the picture at top as a gauge of his students: who would ask about it, who would use it as a conversation starter.) I learned to love interviewing people and telling their stories and doing them justice.
Fink had done it all as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. We had to cajole his stories out of him. Right until the end he lived what he taught: the reporter is not the story, never should be. But when his students coaxed one out of him, we were in awe. Stories from the Soviet Union, India, Nepal, Japan - and Fink at the center, trying to get them out first, trying to get the scoop.
Two days before I was to fly to Cuba on assignment, he told me my favorite Fink story. It was not a newspaper story. While still in the U.S. Marines, Fink's ship had pulled into Havana. His buddies tried to encourage him to go drinking with them. He refused. He had other things to do. So, while his friends were hitting the bars, Fink walked the 11 miles up to Ernest Hemingway's house in the hills of San Francisco, overlooking Havana.
When he got there, the house maid told him that Hemingway was not there. So Fink walked all the way back. It was midnight by the time he returned to his vessel, and his ship mates were all drunk.
"You should have been there," one of the guys told Fink. "Some crazy American writer called Papa or something was buying us drinks all night."
Fink also taught me to love newspapers and to want to make them better. Throughout my many years in journalism, Fink was always there to help, to offer advice in terse, telgraphic emails or red-markered letters banged out on his typewriter. Even when I switched careers, he helped me and guided me.
I have a hundred stories to tell, but right now only one matters: He is gone and that hurts. He didn't just help me get a job, he managed to infuse me with a passion. I'm proud to have known him and called him friend by the end of his life. I'm proud that I got all the way through this post without mentioning his eyebrows. But above all, I'm grateful for everything he ever did for me.
But I can not tell you how upsetting it is knowing that he will not read this and I will not receive a proof-read and red-ink splattered version of it back telling me I could do better.