One of the craziest things I did in college was to take four classes from Conrad Fink in the course of two quarters. I was partway through my junior year at the University of Georgia before I applied to the Grady College of Journalism. At that point, I also hadn’t worked at the student newspaper, the Red & Black. As such, I was in a rush if I was to graduate on time. I don’t remember having much of an impression of Fink* before I landed in one of his classes, even though his liberal use of a red editing pen was well-known in the halls of Grady. But in less than six months, he became the greatest teacher I ever had.
(* Fink always referred to students by their last names, and most of his students referred to him only by his. I didn’t learn the first names of some of my closest friends in college until weeks after meeting them in one of Fink’s classes.)
By the time he joined the university in 1983, Fink had already had a career any journalist would envy: an Associated Press correspondent in south Asia during the 1960s who went on to become a vice president at the news service. He later shared his experience with, literally, thousands of UGA students. I was one of them.
He began each class by leading a critique of that morning’s papers, starting with the Red & Black. Fink always said the most important thing the “untutored and unwashed” could do to further their journalistic careers while at school was – with the exception of taking his classes – to work at the R&B, and I think he always had a soft spot for those of us who did, even if late nights spent in the newsroom meant our grades weren’t among his students’ best. As embarrassing as it sometimes was to have him dissect one of your stories in front of the class – “Stanford, your own mother wouldn’t read that lede!” – to this day I remember the compliments he paid some of mine.
(Scene: Fink walks in and drops a two-foot length of cable the size of your wrist on the table at the front of the class. He then barks about how, in his day, the stories he sent from the rice paddies of Vietnam had to travel, one painstaking character at a time, over this sort of cable to the AP office in New York. It took forever. But now, he said, waggling his legendary eyebrows, the same story can be sent over a fiber optic cable far smaller than this – holding up his pinkie – in less than the time it’s taken me to tell you this story.)
I graduated from the university’s journalism school in December of 1994. Not being the traditional June commencement, there wasn’t a lot of pomp or circumstance or caps or gowns. Fink was good enough to pose for a photo, despite my questionable taste in neckwear: