The last time I saw Conrad Fink, I walked into his office while making a quick visit to the University of Georgia, and I stayed for probably 10 minutes. At that point, I could feel him wanting me to get the hell out of his office. He was a busy man, he had too much wisdom to impart on those journalistic students who committed daily atrocities. He couldn’t talk much about the past with a former student, because he had too many damn edits to make in the present.
I said my goodbye, shook his hand and walked away. This was probably 2002, so I haven’t seen Fink in about 10 years. I don’t remember much of our last conversation together, but I have never forgotten – nor will I ever let go – of the lessons he taught me.
He was the biggest influence in my journalistic life and my biggest mentor. He accomplished goals I can only dream about. He was a longtime Associated Press writer who traveled the world, told the biggest stories, went into management, worked as a professor and became a mentor for many of the journalism students that passed through the UGA Arch.
If you didn’t get to know Fink as a journalism student at UGA, what the hell was wrong with you? If Fink didn’t know you, why were you even bothering?
On Friday, after a 20-year battle with prostate cancer – a fight I was sure he was going to win – Fink died* at the age of 80.
*He would not have been pleased with me for burying the lede of this post.
He was important enough to me (that, or I realized the importance of needing every ounce of Fink I could imbibe) that I took all five of the classes he taught at UGA. My duties at the student paper, the Red & Black, oftentimes made it impossible for me to turn in assignments on time (or to make it to his classes at all). He understood that and he appreciated the students who recognized the importance of apprenticing at the student paper, but he also knew when it was time to bear down on me.
In two separate classes, he sent me the following note tapped on his ever-present typewriter: “Mr. Katzowitz, March 1 is semester midpoint. I recommend you withdraw from this course. I don’t think you can earn a passing grade in the time left.” The first time he gave that to me, it scared the shit out of me, and somehow, I willed myself to pass that class. The second time I got the note, I knew it was him telling me to start doing the work. In both classes, he gave me an ‘A.’
Sometimes, I disappointed him, especially during my senior year when I, as the paper’s sports editor, wrote a weekly football picks column that was sophomoric and disgusting and, ultimately, unfunny. I recently reread some of those columns, and I was embarrassed for my 21-year-old self. But Fink also understood the need to allow his students to grow. He said his piece, and when I ignored him and continued writing the column, he left me alone.
Fink was famous on campus for a few things: No. 1, his eyebrows. His bushy, bushy eyebrows that were almost impossible to believe. It was the first thing you noticed about him. But there was also an elegance to his eyebrows. They weren’t necessarily distinguished, but they also weren’t sloppy. They were Fink, and really, that’s the only description I can offer.
No. 2, the way he opened a vein before reading a student’s paper or article and then bleeding all over it. His red pen was brutal, and even on assignments that were well-received by Fink, he still destroyed each attempt with that damn red pen. He was to editing as Norman Bates was to women in the shower.
No. 3, his most famous in-class advice was, whenever you were writing a story, to always think about the little old lady from Keokuk, Iowa. In other words, explain it as simply as possible so that even an elderly woman in the Heartland could understand. That line made for great fodder – and no doubt, it’s a true idea – but that’s not really what I think about every day.
No, what I remember most is what he taught me about self-editing. After hashing out your story and rereading it once for editing purposes, he said, get up from the computer (or, in his case, the typewriter) before sending it to the copy desk. Take a breath, get your eyes focused on something else before you return for one last edit, slow down if even for an instance. His exact advice, in fact, was to “go to the john.” And whenever I was covering a late-night Cincinnati Reds game or finishing up my University of Cincinnati basketball gamer or banging out a Roger Federer piece for the NY Times, before I hit send, I always got up and went to the john. And yes, usually I thought about Fink while doing so.
I remembered his tales about his first newspaper job at the Daily Pantagraph in Bloomington, Ill., and when I was on assignment covering a University of Cincinnati basketball game at Illinois State in Normal, not too far from Bloomington, I procured a copy of the Pantagraph. I sent him a note on Facebook telling Fink that I was thinking about him.
That’s the other thing about Fink. He never stopped evolving. He signed up for Facebook and instantly was connected to all his admirers. He was an old-school newspaper writer, but he also understood where the Internet was taking journalism. Did he understand the consequences on the newspaper business when I was in college? No, I don’t think so. He never thought newspapers would begin to become irrelevant. I think he was wrong about that. That might be the only thing about which he ever was wrong.
Yet, as evidenced by the clip below, it didn’t take him long to get it right.
Ah, I wish Fink had gotten on Twitter. I would have loved to hear about him washing his dog.
We kept in touch. Well, I kept in touch with him, and usually, he responded shortly and sweetly.
In May 2007, when I still lived in Cincinnati and was planning my itinerary for my brother’s wedding in Atlanta, I sent him an e-mail saying I would make a day-trip to Athens if he was around. He wrote back: “katzowitz, you rascal, you voice from my past! delighted hear from you. unfortunately am at my upstate ny farm clearing my head of undergraduate journalistic misdemeanors and felonies. try me again in late august. Fink”
On Feb. 29, 2008, I sent him a link to the most-impactful story I’ve ever written, a New York Times piece that made the sports front about a disabled wrestler from southwest Ohio. In the e-mail, I wrote, “How many of these bylines do I have to get before I get a free copy of your sports writing book?” He wrote back: “free? you rascal! i should be charging you. Fink”
When I wanted to send him a copy of my first book, Bearcats Rising, I asked for his address so I could send him a package, and he wrote back, “doesn’t tick, does it? fink.” In the acknowledgment section in the book, I penned, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for his guidance and help. He is my mentor, and even though he still refuses to send me any of his books unless he has my personal check in hand, I’ll always be grateful to the ink-stained wretch.” In response, he sent me this message: “katzowitz: enormously flattered by your acknowledgment of me in your book, which i will delight in reading. thanks, and great good luck. fink”
That was the last time we corresponded.
[UPDATE: Just got this e-mail from a former Fink-acolyte who overlapped with me at UGA: "He'd be proud of you, Josh. I know when I saw him in November he asked for an update on you."
I can't tell you how good that makes me feel.]
He imparted so much knowledge on all of us, but he was not overly generous with his compliments, maybe because we all so badly wanted his respect. You know, he always talked about wordsmiths, those who could craft a story into a journalistic masterpiece. Usually, he was referring to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Steve Hummer when he used that term, but he probably harkened back to the days of Red Smith and Jim Murray. I once asked him if he ever thought I would be a wordsmith, and he said he believed that I would. It was, without a doubt, the nicest thing he ever said to me.
Fink, I’m still working to that goal, and I’m still remembering everything you taught me. I’m so sad I never made another visit to Athens to visit. But I’ll never forget you – not your bushy eyebrows, not your red ink, not your passion for journalism. Fink, you were more than a professor to me. You were my hero. And I, along with your students, am going to miss you greatly. Tonight, the little old lady from Keokuk, Iowa is weeping.