ATLANTA — Conrad Fink left his scores of students with unforgettable stories about his infamous red pen and his unshaking commitment to journalism during a teaching career that spanned almost three decades.
Fink, a longtime University of Georgia professor and former Associated Press executive, died on Friday at the age of 80. To his students, the bushy-browed instructor was more than a professor. He was a sage. And for years to come, readers will benefit as those pupils apply his teachings to news they cover from Phoenix to Cincinnati to Miami — and around the world.
My first encounter with him came about 11 years ago when I was a nervous freshman trying to make my mark at The Red & Black, the university's independent student newspaper that Fink used as class material each day. After a forgettable piece on the paper's front page, a colleague patted me on the shoulder as I sat in the newspaper's office and said: "You've been summoned."
He didn't need to say who wanted to see me. I already knew. I nervously shuffled into Fink's cinderblock office the next morning, clutching the day's edition of the newspaper like a shield. Almost as soon as I could sit down, he snatched the paper out of my hand. "This," he said, pointing at the newspaper, his eyebrows cocked, "is the most important thing you can do in your four years here. Now get out of my office."
I did. But I came back. And a few times each week for the next four years, I sat in Fink's office and his classroom, dissecting the day's Red & Black and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
I delighted in getting tweaked by this journalism master, and our discussions expanded to include ethics, prose and career opportunities. But when our talk ventured outside of journalism, he'd stop me right there. "No sex here," he'd say as I blushed, stammering to explain that I had no intention of going there.
His classes seemed harder to get into than UGA football games, and those who did were in for a treat.
Fink perfected a form of adversarial education since joining the school's faculty in 1983, and somehow managed to attack and enlighten his students at the same time. Those who worked for the campus newspaper girded for battle before entering his classes. He'd question our language, our headlines, our ethical standards, our story angles, and urge us to craft pieces that would be relevant to a little old lady in Keokuk, Iowa.
He was a throwback with unrelenting standards for his students. His criticism could be particularly deflating, especially when it involved merciless editing from his red pen. Many kept these devastating edits as a badge of honor long after they left his classroom, and his words still reverberate in the minds of reporters around the globe each day as they fine-tune their work.
Once, he told a student his article in the day's paper made him spit up his coffee. And don't think about asking him for an extension on an assignment. There are only deadlines in journalism, he'd say, and woe to the journalist who missed them.
His students were "rascals," and his classes, he'd say with a smirk, were "dog and pony shows." His course on media ethics was a particular delight. He'd engage students in lively debates about local and national controversies. Even his own mortality wasn't off-limits, as he'd challenge his students about whether they'd run a front-page story on his death when he went "beyond the Great Deadline."
But there was also tenderness beneath his gruff demeanor, and he'd reveal that softer side with kind words and unwavering loyalty. "I always defend my people," he wrote to me after rushing to support a student whose Red & Black column was noticed by a conservative pundit who brought the writer unwelcome attention from around the country. And there was no better feeling than writing a story that made Fink proud. "You did good today, pal," he'd say, and you'd think you won a Pulitzer.
As newspaper budget cuts and Internet journalism dramatically transformed his field, Fink managed to strike a balance between a curmudgeonly frustration and grudging optimism. He was ever hopeful that the high-minded work he championed as an AP correspondent covering conflicts in southeast Asia and the Middle East wouldn't be eroded by fiscal constraints and changing readership patterns. To his acolytes, he offered simple advice: "Unplug and read."
"There's more good journalism out there than there ever has been," he told one interviewer recently. "You just have to go find it, that's all."
Those who knew Fink understood that he still missed "the game," as he called the journalism business. He took pains to keep up with the careers of his students, a network of working journalists and others that he called Fink Inc. "You are lucky you're not running against a young Conrad C. Fink," he wrote me after one memorable scoop. "I would beat your ass. Go get 'em, tiger."
The last I heard from Fink was just a few days ago, when I asked him if he was able to teach this year. "Plan to be in my seminar room to greet the untutored and unwashed on Monday," he wrote back.
He didn't make it. But his legacy will live on far beyond that Great Deadline, echoing in the work of his students who work to make the world a better — and better informed — place.
Bluestein graduated from the University of Georgia in 2004 and has worked for The Associated Press in Atlanta since 2005. He covers law enforcement and legal affairs.