Saturday, January 14, 2012

Conrad Fink, UGA and AP great

Conrad C. Fink, the foreign correspondent, Associated Press vice president and newspaper executive who taught journalism at the University of Georgia for 28 years, died Saturday, according to numerous media outlets and the university's Grady College.

He was something else. He had bushy eyebrows that inspired a range of emotions most easily categorized as "fear." He was quick to the point, usually with a red pen.

He taught generations of reporters and editors the right way to do it, and his lessons will live on, not just through his students, but through theirs.

I was told as an undergraduate that Fink was the only professor at the University of Georgia without a masters or doctorate. He once pointed to a column in The Wall Street Journal's stock listings and told me, "See that? I told them to put that in."

He was a U.S. Marine in the 1950s. He was, as Barry Hollander told The Red & Black, "old school in all the good ways about what journalists should do, and how they should act, and the way they should pursue a story."

Fink, 80, died of prostate cancer, according to the Associated Press. The college said his family plans a funeral in New York state, where Fink had a farm and summered with his wife.

Fink worked 20 years for the Associated Press as a foreign and war correspondent, bureau chief, editor and executive on desks including Chicago, New York, New Delhi and London. Eventually he became a vice president of the venerated worldwide news organization.

Fink used to say, of his years as a foreign correspondent, that if the day ended with 5 facts in hand, that was a good day. In those younger days, he looked a lot like James Bond.

After leaving the Associated Press, Fink became a newspaper executive specializing in acquisitions. He came to the University of Georgia in 1983 and over three decades became synonymous with Grady College, the university's journalism school.

He always kept a typewriter on his desk, but embraced the Internet's power for news. He also worried that young people confused social networking "with being informed."

As he said, "You don't learn much about Iraq when you Twitter about somebody washing their dog, do you?"



Fink called students and former students only by their last names. Once when I called and said, "This is Travis," he asked why I hadn't identified myself.

He called undergraduates "rascals." He called people "pal," which he could use across a spectrum of insinuations. He had that sparkle in his eye, the "it" that special people so often possess.

He used to write fantastic things on student's papers. Like the one most cutting, hilarious and useful thing you'd say if you were a teacher, and he doled those out several times a week. His Facebook page today is a testament to his effectiveness.

"The best teachers don't tell you how great you are," Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson wrote. "The best teachers show you what you need to learn to be as great as you can be. Fink, thanks for showing us, and thanks for caring."

That may have been Fink's greatest strength as a teacher. He cared. His office at the university was a windowless cinder block closet. But it felt worldly in ways I can't describe.

"Finksters" are assembling a Google map showing his reach as a teacher. If completed, I expect it will show influence across the world.

Because I believe in journalism, because I believe in the power of an informed electorate, I am grateful today for Conrad Fink. Of all the people I've known in my life, I believe he will have the largest impact on the world.

Note: I believe the picture of Fink above, at his typewriter, was taken by a newspaper photographer some years ago. I apologize for not knowing who. I got it from Fink's Twitter account. It's a great shot.

2 comments:

Tommy said...

Travis,

Great read. I posted the following on my Facebook page with a link to your obit:

RIP, Conrad Fink, the foreign correspondent, Associated Press vice president and newspaper executive who taught journalism at the University of Georgia for three decades. Here are three things I remember vividly as one of his students:
1. His eyebrows were the most ideally suited for glowering God ever bestowed. It's plausible that they were on loan from an Old Testament prophet. Fearsome.
2. He taught us rather vividly the inaccuracy of the cliche "shots rang out..." Gunshots don't ring, he explained. They CRACK! and then instantaneously hiss by your ear.
3. I was a minute late to his class once. He called me "scoundrel" with the kind of disdain members of my generation need multiple obscenities to articulate. I deserved far worse.

Lucid Idiocy said...

True on all counts, my man. Thanks.