UGA journalism professor and former Vice President of The Associated Press Conrad Fink passed away on Saturday, January 14, 2012. I am proud to say I was one of his students. The following is a piece I’ve written about him.
“Tell me a story.”
For as long as I’ve known Conrad Fink, that’s all he’s ever really wanted from me or any other journalism student lucky enough to be in one of his classes.
He’d been doing that his whole life, telling stories, informing the public on the important news of the day. And then this globetrotting reporter and news executive decided to teach us, “the untutored and unwashed,” how to do the same.
Behind that gruff exterior, Fink had this unbridled enthusiasm for his students. In his classes it wasn’t just about producing clean copy, discussions about journalistic ethics or publication management, though he was passionate about all of that and then some.
We grew to be better people (and journalists) in that class and that just doesn’t happen unless you’ve got a professor who is more concerned about that transformation than you are.
I remember the first column I’d ever gotten published in our campus newspaper, The Red and Black. Fink and I had gone back and forth editing it for several days before I submitted it to the Opinions editor.
The day it showed up in print…Fink was so excited, he didn’t even make it into the conference room where we held class. Walking up to those of us sitting in the hallway, he announced to my Editorial Writing classmates that “George is in the paper today,” as he held up that day’s paper for all to see.
Red pen in hand, Fink spent that semester cutting through my wordiness and trying to break through to who I was at my core.
I started out quiet and reserved in that class. But Fink never quit. He saw something in me. It was something that I had been scared of and had stubbornly tried to keep buried under technical jargon, numbers and jokes. Fink saw my true voice as a writer and wouldn’t let go of it.
He took every chance to make sure I spoke up. In writing and in life.
If I was in his office pitching column ideas about serious topics with loads of statistics and laboratory terminology, he’d shake his head, furrow his iconic eyebrows and note that while all of that was important, he also needed a story. If I was going to talk about an issue he needed to know why it mattered to me. He wanted a personal story. He wanted emotion.
To date, my best columns aren’t just the ones with the cleanest copy, they’re also the ones with a voice I’m proud to call my own. And I must thank Conrad Fink for not only helping me discover my voice but for giving me the courage to use it.
In Fink’s class, I was called upon all the time. Often to answer the most uncomfortable of questions.
Fink once had us read the rough draft of a column written by a publisher friend of his. I won’t mince words. I hated it. But like everyone else, when he asked the entire class what we thought of his friend’s work I initially said nothing and averted my eyes. But as I turned to look back towards the front of the room again, I found Fink staring directly at me, as if he could see through my skull and into my brain:
“Well, George, what do you think? I know you’ve got something to say.”
I could have simply mumbled that the column was okay, fine, whatever. But I didn’t. I always liked how honest Fink was with me about my writing and I felt I owed him the same. And if he could trust me to handle the truth, then I’d trust him.
As I unloaded my extensive critique of that column onto the rest of the class, something curious happened. A few of my other classmates started chiming in with their own opinions. A lively conversation ensued. And I could have sworn I saw a small smile on Fink’s face.
Our journalism school held a symposium that same semester. I was chosen to participate in the event’s discussions on journalistic courage. Fink was a moderator for one of the discussion sessions. A few minutes before his part of the event was set to begin, he walked over to me and said the following:
“George, I expect you to engage and ask questions during my discussion with a sense of firmness and authority in your voice.” *
I’ve always had trouble speaking up because I didn’t always think that what I had to say was worth saying. Let alone worth publishing. But as I continue on my journey to discover where I belong in the world of journalism, I do so knowing that my voice does matter and that as journalists, we always have an impact. I do so remembering Fink’s words and the faith he had in his students.
I’ve just told you a number of personal stories about Conrad Fink and they are by no means exhaustive of all of the ones I have of him nor are they all-encompassing of the kind of man he truly was.
I just hope you understand the depth of my gratitude for having known him, the kinds of lessons he so freely taught us, the Finksters, and the profound impact he’s had on the world as a journalist, teacher and friend.
*All quotes were reconstructed from my memories of events that happened a year ago and as such are only my best approximations of what was said. I wouldn’t be a Finkster if I didn’t make sure you knew this.