Sunward he climbedRead Now
His life story is the stuff of dramatic fiction. But you can't make this one up--it would be too unbelievable. It’s a story of sadness, loss, pain, survival and ultimately triumph. Of someone who made it through hardship to live a long life beyond their modest childhood dreams. Someone who packed a lifetime of heroics into a few years in his early 20s, then settled down in 1950s Florida with his family and a supervisor's job at the phone company.
He came from a generation that learned hard lessons of life and death in wartime. But he had a jump on all of them: he had learned those lessons long before December 7th, 1941.
Born in an Indiana farm-house in 1921, he was an only child. If the twenties were roaring, he never heard them.
He lost his father in a house fire when he was just six years old. Then his mother died when he was 13. That meant he not only had the Great Depression to face, he had to face it without parents or siblings.
He lived for a time in an orphanage, where bread dipped in molasses was considered a meal.
When they could afford it, he lived with family members, but he was required to do his part. He talked of leaving school during the lunch hour to work behind a candy counter—passing on every nickel earned to the relatives providing for him. He had another job washing a rich doctor's car.
He was working when John Dillinger was shot, remembering it allowed him to sell more EXTRA! newspaper editions on his bicycle paper route.
Without the time and resources to do team sports, his fondest memory of high school was a model plane he built in a shop class. But when it came time to test that model, he missed it, because he was working.
After a whirlwind 6-month courtship carried out mostly by letter, he married his wife Janet at 20-years-old. In a Mississippi courthouse where he was stationed, they signed the paperwork that sealed a marriage that lasted until her death 63 years later.
With only a day's leave, the honeymoon was a drive down to New Orleans for a Po-boy wedding dinner.
So when December 7th came, this farm boy was already in the service. It just meant a longer stint in uniform.
With Jan in tow, he spent the early war years going from base to base qualifying on a number of planes. From workhorses like the T-6 Texan to marvels of engineering like the P-51 Mustang. He was an instructor, then later flew transport and dive bombing missions.
During the war, he trained Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) who towed targets in dangerous live fire exercises. Nearly forty of them died doing their jobs.
He knew the power, value and strength of women 70 years before people needed a hashtag to remind them of those basic truths.
He told his grandsons what it would take the Air Force 50 years to figure out: that those women would have proven just as good as any male pilots if given the chance to go into combat.
(Later, he lamented the fact the WASPs weren’t officially designated veterans, and therefore weren't allowed proper military benefits or burials when they passed on. Congress eventually figured that out too, 30 years later. But to the end of his life, he marveled at and saluted women like WASP founder Jackie Cochran. When one of his grandsons later came across her exhibit in the National Air And Space museum, it brought to life all the stories he'd been telling for years.)
Never was a man more qualified to raise three daughters, and it was no surprise they turned into three very strong women.
He was in the Pacific preparing for the invasion of Japan when the bomb was dropped.
After reaching the rank of Captain in the Air Force, he came home to Indiana. He later moved his family to sunny South Florida, and spent his career with the Bell phone company, pre-cursor to AT&T.
He continued working hard, raising a family, teaching his girls to play softball, singing in the church choir. Jan was at home, a Girl Scout leader and Sunday school teacher. They traveled the US when the girls were young, then went around the world after he retired.
Of course he never fully retired, instead proudly working into his 80s, picking up jobs like greeting cruise ship travelers.
Regrets—he had more than a few. And he mentioned them more than once. He wished he could have kept flying. He wished he’d been able to go to college.
He wished he could fully teach us what his experiences taught him.
Oh, he tried. He repeated many of these stories over the years to grandchildren who rolled their young eyes, until they were old enough to listen to those same stories anew with widened eyes.
He knew hardship, and it made him grateful for what he had. He knew death and darkness intimately, so he appreciated the light of every day he had.
He wasn't ready to stop loving when Jan died. He married again in his 80s, spending 14 years with Charlene, the woman he doted on and bragged about endlessly, who cared for him until the end. He thanked her over and over again for being there when he needed her most.
After he turned 90, he said, “I wake up every morning, look over at my wife and think, ‘Hey! I’m alive, one more day!”
That didn’t happen this past Friday. He passed away on Thursday, January 17th.
In Mark Maynard Wilson, we have lost one more witness to the utter destitution faced by his generation alone. The generation that overcame that destitution to beat back the darkest forces the world had even known.
But to his wife, three daughters, six grandchildren, four (soon-to-be five) great-grandchildren, we lost Dad, our grandpa, great-grandpa. Mark.
The big burly man who was still going to “Los Angeles fitness” well into his 90s.
A strong-willed but sensitive man who called us “dear heart,” picked worms up off the pavement hoping to save them from the Florida sun, and told us and taught us to love, love, love our families. And our pets.
To be happy with everything we had, no matter what.
One of his favorite poems was of course about aviation. It was written by a fellow World War Two fighter pilot named John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
He too had signed up to fly before Pearl Harbor. But he didn’t live to see the end of the war, or even his 20th birthday.
Mark Wilson knew men (and WASP women) who met that fate, and no doubt thought of them whenever he’d read this poem. Endlessly thankful that he was able to grow old and surround himself with the family that now misses him so much:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew--
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
-John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
My mother was raised in Miami, so she had no idea what she was witnessing. A flight attendant at the time, she still gets wide-eyed when she talks about what she saw in that otherwise dignified hotel lobby during a trip in 1980:
Grown men on all fours barking like dogs.
They were dogs. Dawgs.
We’d get another try at a Championship a couple years after that one, but then Herschel Walker left, and so did our chances at glory. (Donald Trump took him away from us to the USFL, but that’s another story for another time.)
You’ll have to forgive us, because we all have these stories, and we will want to tell you about them this week. You’re going to see some rabid bulldog fans.
With so much going on in the world and in Washington, I’ve tried to tell myself it’s not right to get emotional over a football game.
It hasn’t worked, because it’s not just another football game. It may be for Alabama—but we’re not Alabama. I haven’t seen the dogs play after the first week of January in my natural born life.
If you grew up in this state after the 80s, you heard tales of the glory days that happened before you were born. You learned to worship invincible running back Hershel Walker and Coach Vince Dooley. You remember in the mid 90s hearing “Coach Donnan’s dogs could go all the way this year,” only to witness the inevitable disappointment as they fell short.
If you were unlucky like I was in middle school, you might have suffered through three straight years of losses to Georgia Tech while being taught Earth Science by the wife of that team’s offensive coordinator. You got in trouble for trying to steal back pieces of the UGA stadium’s hedges from her daughters—branches they tore from our hearts after another win.
When you were lucky, you enjoyed the resurgence of the early and middle Mark Richt years, even though that preseason #1 year ended without so much as an SEC title. Each year you’d lose early, then the sportswriters would put out the “Here’s How We’re Still In It” stories. You’d lose another, and those writers would oblige again, only transitioning over to the “What Happened?” stories after the third or fourth loss of the year.
Still. every preseason or two, Vince Dooley would tell us how this year could be the year, and draw from experience to prop up our hopes. But Coach Dooley has been carrying our dreams for long enough. The man may not be tired, but he is advancing in age. He can’t do it forever.
The memorabilia from his championship season 38 years ago always fit in pretty nicely in my house. I’m an antiques hound, always was. In the garage sits the car I drove in college-- my family’s gray 1965 Cadillac painted UGA red and white. We have faded crates filled with 1980 championship coke bottles--bottles so old some of the caps are rusting.
There’s a vinyl record with a bulldog on it, given to me by a friend. It plays the sweet music of legendary bulldog announcer Larry Munson’s voice. There are drinking glasses with two newspaper front pages on them from the day after we beat Notre Dame. Why two newspapers? Because it was back when Atlanta still had a morning and an evening paper.
Jimmy Carter was president when we last won. The Iran hostage crisis was in its last days. The highlight reels of our glory days are grainy and old—and they’ve been played to death.
It’s time for some new memorabilia.
We aren’t asking for Alabama to give us this one, we’re going to take it. And I ask you to join us.
We’ve all had enough of Nick Saban and his ring collection. We’ve heard “roll tide roll” enough to last us a lifetime.
It’s time to see some grown men and women barking—maybe even on all fours.
By the way, those bottles may be old—but the fizz still bubbles if you shake them. I vowed to take a swig out of one if we won the title again when I was in school in Athens. Another decade of struggles gave me a reprieve. I hope to pop one of those rusted tops this Monday night.
Covering Conrad fink's funeralRead Now
I didn't go up there to write or report anything, but in the end I couldn't help it. He changed the lives of countless people, many of whom couldn't make it up there to pay their last respects. I wrote this for them and for me when I got home, but then stored it away. Two years later, I figured it might comfort a few people who are still thinking about their old professor. I don't think he'd mind me posting it, although he would hate to see anything I write escape the eye of a good editor before being posted. My apologies in advance:
After the service, a church member approached Steve Fink with a look of confused embarrassment.
“I read about his death on the Washington Post website, and I couldn't believe it was the same man,” she said of Steve’s father Conrad. It was exactly how the man in that simple wooden box wanted it to be.
To us he was a journalistic titan, the last of the old guard newsmen. But up there in New York, they didn’t know anything about all that. He was just another senior citizen with a rich history and an adoring family.
They had the funeral in his home church, near the 77 acre farm where he retreated each winter and summer break. It was way out in the upstate New York countryside, where red farmhouses stood out in the white snow, and road signs shared the names of villages, not towns.
In front of the church is a sign that reads, “No Horses Allowed,” and the county wasn’t joking when they issued that order. The program for the service was laid out on a single sheet of paper with
words written on a typewriter. There was a picture of a smiling man on his farm, and it was titled “A
I sat in the back of the church, but I soon realized I was right in the middle of two worlds colliding. To us he was “Fink,” or “Professor Fink” when we were trying to curry favor for that last news quiz grade. But to them he was Uncle Rod, Bro and Bopop.
Fink’s brother walked in with a set of eyebrows almost as impressive as those of his older sibling. His son walked in looking like the AP photograph from 40 years ago, minus the overgrown ‘brows. The group of less than 50 sang a few hymns, and then the program called for “remembrances.”
They are a literary family. They read poems aloud and told stories. His brother recalled hearing some of the same stories we remembered from class, and compared Conrad to a wind-up toy once he started telling those tales. But the stories he heard from his brother in a family setting were different. They were told under the watchful eye of the only soul who could edit Conrad Fink, his wife of 57 years. While his students would never dream those stories of the Khyber Pass might be exaggerated, Sue Fink often marked excessive creativity with a knowing glance.
His younger sister stood up and recalled her brother’s response to the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. A worldly nine-year-old at the time, kid Conrad had said, “What do we do now?” She looked around at the room full of friends and family members missing their ringleader, and said the line again, “What do we do now?”
No one said a word.
Then it was time for the creativity of the old writer’s bloodline to reveal itself in the form of a college student, his granddaughter. Through tears, she talked about her Bopop. She spoke of days on the farm, and a night spent in his truck watching a dazzling lightning storm. She spoke of his “reporter’s drive to record,” which carried over into his family life. He marked the growth of his
grandchildren with a disposable Kodak camera. He stood them up in front of special trees he planted for them. As the trees grew with his grandchildren, he compiled photo albums complete with typewritten, red pen-edited captions that marked the years.
Then she stunned us all when she captured the essence of her grandfather in a single sentence. She spoke of his stories that “hung in the air around him,” even when he wasn’t busy telling them. They were always there, hanging in the air, creating the presence we will never forget.
It was a “good line,” as her grandfather would have said. For in his old age, he was no longer a physically imposing man, but he commanded respect wherever he went. Because even when he wasn’t talking about Mt. Fuji or the Khyber Pass, you knew he’d been to Mt. Fuji and the Khyber Pass. You knew he’d hiked with Robert Kennedy and angered Lyndon Johnson.
I was lucky enough to represent the hundreds and hundreds of students who would have loved to make the trip up there. I was honored to be able to pay my respects. I wanted to tell the family his lessons went far beyond the printed page. He taught me to be a man, to quit using my youth as an excuse for anything. He taught me that integrity never goes out of style. He showed me what the gold standard looks like in a world accustomed to dealing in monopoly money.
His family and his community knew little of how he spent his days in the classroom. They had a very good idea of course, based on what they knew of their Uncle Rod. He was the guy who snuck out of a family reunion for an hour one evening. He took a nephew down to the basement and pulled out a box full of newspapers. For the next hour, with the family celebrating above, he explained every red mark he made on those pages to his nephew.
As students we knew that red pen well, but we thought he kept his political opinions closely guarded. Not so in his home community, where he wrote editorials about the dangers of fracking for the local paper.
Surprised to hear that, I learned there were some parts of the two worlds that never overlapped. But others did. Most students will remember the unique way he structured his classroom. We thought it was like a board room, a conference table. Through his family, I learned it was actually a dinner table.
They said he always sat at the end of the dinner table, holding court over discussions he always ensured would stay lively. Some of his family members were surprised to learn that’s exactly how he structured his classes. The professor sparked discussions from the end of the table, then moderated them as they went on. The favorites sat on either side closest to him. His family told me
the roots of that format were deep.
As a young man, Conrad and his brother sat at the left and right hands of their father, who occupied the seat at the end.
They knew the side of Conrad Fink we only saw in pictures on his office wall. The man out there working on his beloved farm all day long. He’d find a reason to get up on the tractor he called a “badass ride,” or paint the barn, or go out walking in his boots with a favorite walking stick. Yet no matter what, every night for dinner, they said he came to the table in a coat and tie.
As I looked around at the gracious and warm family, I imagined him there. He was the center of that world as well, and they were missing their father, their uncle, their older brother. His stories were still hanging in the cold New York air as they gathered that night, as they will in the halls of the Grady College back in Georgia.
I too have that drive to record, and never deleted a single word he sent me—even the occasional emails that were little more than a single word. But I remembered one that went on for a little bit, and I came across it as I was writing this. He closed a discussion with this “graf”:
“will tell you sometime how i am the last man you will know who filed on a morse code circuit--'twas outa tezpur, india , during china- india war. and we produced--black editing pencils and all--the best journalism before or since. you are studying under the last of the mohicans, pal. Fink"
He never did tell me that story of the morse code circuit. I suppose it will have to stay there with all the others, hanging in the air.
The cashier had me pegged for a patriot, but I was really just another football fan. There I was, standing in line with my flag pole that just happened to come with an American flag. I thought it was a great bonus, and would surely hang it for the rest of the year when football was over and my Georgia G came down.
Then she said it: “Buying this for tomorrow?”
I did my best to hide from my face the instant shame I felt. “Yes ma’am,” I lied.
Tuesday was September 10, and I was in The Home Depot to take care of another bullet point on the endless list that comes with putting together a new house: a flag pole. I was planning to go home, store the American flag, and put up that Georgia G.
I don’t mean for this to be another clichéd way of drilling home the “never forget” message. I don’t think anyone really “forgets” days like September 11, 2001.
I took the above picture when I went back to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii this summer. I saw there were still endless crowds of people paying their respects along with me. Nearly 72 years later, it proves we have a long memory for our meaningful tragedies and the importance of remembering them.
But I do think we push them from our minds as we go about living our day to day lives. Fall is for football, winter for holidays, and summer for cookouts. We don’t always spend time in a cemetery on Memorial Day, or pause to think about the deaths of soldiers whose names still come across the newscast from time to time.
I’ve covered a number of homecoming processionals for these men, and it’s always a stirring scene. Hundreds line the route in tears, holding pictures of another young man killed in the Middle East. I covered one this past Sunday in Douglasville. Staff Sgt. Joshua Bowden’s friends and supporters lined the route for miles. To many he was a stranger, but they still held hand-made posters and flags in one hand, tissues in the other.
The procession passed. The crowds lining both sides of the street paused—and then started to leave. They walked back to their cars, folded up their flags. I too packed up my camera and walked back to my car.
When I turned to look back down the street, everyone had gone back to their plans on that beautiful Sunday morning.
Life moves on—just as it will today on September 12th. But at least they took their time to honor what it means to serve; to reflect on what 9/11 meant to one man and the continuing consequences of that day.
I’m glad I was able to see it, and I'll try to do better to pay my respects outside the days marked on the calendar.
My Tuesday forgetfulness was all the more shameful considering I’d already made plans for honoring September 11. “The Guys” is a play about a journalist who helps a NYC firefighter pen eulogies for his fallen comrades. It was very moving when my wife and I went Wednesday night.
It plays for several more weeks at Theatrical Outfit downtown. Always a fantastic venue for heartfelt shows.
I'm Marc McAfee. I write news stories for a living, but every once in awhile I write a little more than what makes it on the air. Thanks for taking a look.