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.
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