The thanks we owe to mentors like Conrad Fink

It’s always risky to write a column about someone known for his red editing pen, but here goes nothing.

It was the day after Valentine’s Day, 1997. Your correspondent, then 18 years old and interviewing for a scholarship at the University of Georgia, had just been handed a copy of The Red & Black.

Alongside one article, which concerned certain services offered at the UGA health clinic, was a photograph of — how to describe this on a family website, rather than a student one? — an elongated yellow fruit wearing a latex prophylactic. Was this, one interviewer asked the young would-be journalism major, an example of responsible reportage?

I gave her a satisfactory enough answer to keep the conversation moving on a media-ethics bent and, minutes later, said something about weighing the public’s right to know versus its need to know. For the first time in the session, another interviewer raised the bushiest eyebrows I’d ever seen and leaned forward to offer his approval.

Years later, I was told that exchange, and the favor it won me from Conrad Fink, helped to clinch the scholarship for me. From then on, I was Fink’s. And, to my great fortune, Fink was mine: my professor, my mentor, my career counselor, my (always constructive) critic, my encourager from afar.

Conrad Fink (UGA photo)

Conrad Fink (UGA photo)

Next to a supportive family, there may be no greater gift for a young person than a committed, transformative mentor, be it a coach, pastor, Scout leader, employer or teacher. I’ve been blessed to have a few, none more transformative than Conrad Fink.

“Transformative” is the best way to describe his influence. That scholarship took me to six continents, giving me the perspective and desire eventually to work overseas. Later, I did — and it was Fink who introduced me to the man who hired and posted me to Belgium.

I wrote my first editorials for Fink’s opinion writing class. More broadly, his classes and office chats took a young man with vague notions about maybe, one day, working in journalism and put me on the path I’ve followed the past 10 years. (If you like my work, credit him; if not, blame me.)

I’m not alone: There are scores of Fink acolytes working in Atlanta and well beyond, into the upper echelons of the U.S. news media.

Like any good mentor, Fink knows whereof he speaks. He covered the Vietnam War for the Associated Press and later helped run the company from “50 Rock[efeller Plaza].” He bought and sold media outlets for another company. All by his early 50s.

Fink had the credentials to do whatever he wanted the past 28 years, and his students respect that. We revere him because there was nothing he wanted more than to help aspiring journalists.

He teaches plenty in the small classes he leads from the head of a conference table. But, invariably, the chance for a real lesson comes from the summons scrawled in red ink on many a student’s paper: “See me.”

He might commend you for an observation you made and then lift your eyes to a different horizon, to see the knowledge and possibilities that followed from it. He might want only to make a seemingly small correction in person, so that the lesson — for example, hypothetically of course, that “snuck” is not a word (it’s “sneaked”) — would be more likely to stick.

And there was always the chance that he would recommend you seek a career in some other line of work. Fink is not one to sugarcoat a hard truth, and I expect there are former students of his who are just as thankful that Fink steered them away from an ill-suited career in journalism as there are Finkites grateful that he did push them into this field.

If you’ve had such influences on your life, you have reason enough to be thankful today. They’re among the blessings I count today.

That means you, Fink. I hope the turkey tastes good, pal.

(Note: Per AJC.com policy, because I will be out of the office until Monday, comments between now and then will go through moderation before being published. Thanks for your understanding, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.)

– By Kyle Wingfield

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14 comments Add your comment

mdbatl

November 24th, 2011
12:06 am

Kyle,

I was lucky enough to have Fink as a professor for two semesters at Georgia– including the one where you were hired by the AJC. I think he was pretty confident you were going to get the job.

But I agree with everything you wrote 100%. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much from a single professor, even though I postponed journalism to go to law school. Like you, I always relished those “See Me” conversations– I know my writing and powers of observation were exponentially improved every minute I spent in that weird, windowless office with the typewriter and flags. I’m thankful too for having that opportunity to be taught by a master.

–M. Brazeal, Grady College Class of 2010

ND

November 24th, 2011
12:07 am

Learned Hand would be proud of those eyebrows.

Joel Edge

November 24th, 2011
5:38 am

Good stuff. A few years back I had the epiphany that I had been fortunate in my career to work with a lot of good people. It’s odd that we only appreciate these things as we age. Seems you’re starting early. Happy Thanksgiving, Kyle.

DeborahinAthens

November 24th, 2011
6:37 am

Kyle, we agree on something! I think the saddest thing about the stories concerning people like Pastor Eddie Long, and the mess at Penn State is the fact that these people were, at some point, were setting themselves out as trusted mentors. I, too, have had mentors and advisors that have meant the world to me. Thank you all! And thank you, Kyle, for making us all think. While we’re getting all sappy, I’m most thankful for living in a country where we can say what we think without getting thrown in prison.

Cactus

November 24th, 2011
8:54 am

Thank you for using your platform to recognize Conrad Fink; we can never thank effective educators and mentors enough. As Mr. Fink arrived at the Grady School of Journalism, another generous, talented and hardnosed teacher – Mr. Bill Martin – departed. Martin, whose mentees include Deborah Norville and other notables of broadcast journalism, mentored hundreds of aspiring journalists with a mixture of humor, blunt and frank assessments of student work, a thorough understanding of the real world of broadcast journalism and very high expectations. He was a gifted educator and a wonderful friend to those who had a sincere desire to be professional journalists, and his loss from the Grady faculty was never mended, in my opinion.

Road Scholar

November 24th, 2011
9:22 am

Good article Kyle. I hope that we all have had people that have made a difference in our lives, and Thanksgiving is not the only day to remember what they stood for and provided not only to you but to others.One of my brother in laws passed a few weeks ago and he was that steadying influence to his students, his co teachers, and to his clients and business associates. He used his teaching and mentoring to bring out the best in everyone. While through his career he was a high school history teacher, a public and catholic school principal (4 schools), worked in management for a bank and plant superintendant, helped buy out the company he worked for, and he finally retired to address he’s endless reading, he used his teaching skills to mentor students, adults, and his children to reach their potential. His last job was helping his daughter with her children’s book editing company (The Reading Tub), where he was amazed at the talent of these budding authors. He passed a few weeks ago, and I wish that I had taken more time to be around him.
I guess what I’m saying is as you spend time with family and friends this holiday and beyond, tale advantage of the time with your mentors, because they may be stripped away to soon.

Happy Thanksgiving ya’ll!

Marcus Wiggins

November 24th, 2011
9:32 am

Nice work, Kyle. I also appreciate Conrad Fink. I chose not to go into journalism, but I still use the lessons Fink taught me all of the time in my corporate management job. Insightful, clear and concise communication is vital in the fast-paced world we all live in. Beyond the journalism instruction, Fink’s greatest attribute is he cares about his students. He demonstrated the caring through the red pen and the donation of his time and energy in an effort to make us all better pals. Thanks Conrad and Happy Thanksgiving.

Tommy Maddox

November 24th, 2011
11:04 am

Bravo!

Happy Thanksgiving!!!!

Christopher Lancette

November 24th, 2011
7:00 pm

The acolytes are indeed everywhere (including up here in Washington D.C.) and in countless professions. I was a UGA freshman in 1986 when a guest lecturer with big bushy eyebrows tapped me in the head with a newspaper and awoke me from my slumber. Conrad Fink commanded my attention that day and throughout the delightful years ahead. I learned more from him in my j-school years than I did from any man save my father. I owe my success in my first career of journalism to him. Ditto for my second in public relations. As I hit my 30s, I found myself channeling my inner Fink whenever I coached young writers. I still recite him today and advise every aspiring communicator to obtain one of his journalism text books. I graduated 20 years ago and there has not been one day in two decades in which Conrad Fink didn’t make me a better man and a better professional. Now it’s up to all of us former Fink students to pass along his kindness and mentorship to those who come next.

Jack

November 25th, 2011
8:00 am

I’m late to your post, Mr. Wingfield, but you are absolutely correct about having a mentor who has/had wisdom gained by experience. It’s a comfort to be able to draw upon their years-ago guidance. Each of what I call my major decisions were influnced by the memory of their steady hands.

Rusty Powell

November 25th, 2011
11:47 am

I am also a student of Fink and he is not only a credit to journalism but one reason why the UGA School of Journalism is one of the best. He inspired me to work in newspapers for over 10 years and while my career path has since changed (not a very good writer as you can tell) he is the one teacher that I can remember just about every class of his I attended. I had many classes with Fink and Mark Schlabach (now of ESPN fame) and can’t read an article Mark writes without thinking back to the exchanges between Fink and Mark over the validity of “sports” journalism. Thanks for the article Kyle and thank you Fink for the education.

@@

November 25th, 2011
3:58 pm

Nice column, Kyle.

When someone makes a difference in your life, give ‘em credit…highBROWS included.

(ISH)

Hillbilly D

November 25th, 2011
4:54 pm

We’ve all had people who helped us along the way and nudged us in the right direction. My greatest teacher wasn’t a teacher at all. It was my Grandpa, who only went throught the fourth grade and never set foot in a schoolhouse that had more than one room. He was the smartest man I’ve ever known and was blessed with good common sense and excellent judgement. When a person asks me to define “smart”, academic things never even cross my mind. My definition of “smart” is a person who, when faced with a decision, will make the correct one, most times.

Arts & Leisure Round-Up : The Grady Journal

November 30th, 2011
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[...] thanks we owe to mentors like Conrad Fink UGA Grady College alumnus Kyle Wingfield (ABJ ’01) discusses his experiences as one of Conrad …, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution [...]