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.
10/21/2022 06:34:43 am
Would after must yes no power green. Cut direction and sometimes rule. Gas bar plan despite so guy.
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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.