A newspaperman and his mentor: What Conrad Fink (and the Kumari of Kathmandu) taught me about journalism
“She is a ‘living goddess’ but she must be one of the loneliest little girls in the world.”
Those words appeared in newspapers across the U.S. in 1965 — penned by a young Associated Press reporter named Conrad Fink.
In the piece (I dug it up in a Texas newspaper archive) Fink describes the “Kumari of Katmandu,” a 6-year-old, “slender, solemn-faced girl worshiped by thousands of Nepalese who keep her a virtual prisoner.”
Fink later served as vice president of the AP — from 1971 to 1977. In 1983, he became a full-time journalism professor at the University of Georgia.
Fourteen years after that, I sat in his class as a journalism graduate student, wondering if I’d ever be able to write words like his.
Though he held no doctorate, Fink likely was the most respected — and feared — instructor in the Grady College of Journalism. He was an old-school newspaperman with giant, bushy eyebrows.
“I’m on a mission,” he once said in an interview. “I’m tryin’ to convert rascals to journalists.”
He called his students only by their last names (in true AP style). He forced us to think on our feet, giving details of fictional crimes and asking us to shout out a lead paragraph in seconds.
His critiques were scathing, brutal. I remember getting back stories I’d written for his Public Affairs Reporting class — bathed in red ink.
“You call that a lead? Get me into the story, Tryggestad! Now, where are you taking me from there?” I hear his voice in my head almost every time I sit down at my keyboard. Keep the writing tight. Get to the point quickly. Give small, intimate details. “That’s added value, added value, added value. If I say it three times, write it down, Tryggestad.”
He made me better, and he made me love newspapers.
I remember stopping by his office as I was finishing my thesis in 1999. I showed him an issue of The Savannah Morning News, where I had just taken a job as a “cops and crime” reporter. After a busy weekend — including a homicide, pit bull attack on a child and the re-dedication of a lighthouse on Tybee Island — I had three stories on the front page.
“Good work, Tryggestad,” Fink said, and slammed a tack into the front page on the bulletin board outside his office. He was proud of me.
Two years later, I couldn’t muster the courage to tell him I was leaving the daily newspaper business to move to Oklahoma and work for a monthly Christian newspaper. I didn’t think he’d understand — or approve. I thought he’d view this step out in faith as nothing more than a step backward, something that just didn’t make sense.
Looking back, the decision made all the sense in the world. I found a new life, a new family, a wife and a ministry here in the center of the country. As I’ve watched the industry that I love suffer cuts, closures and near-collapse, I’ve received blessing after blessing. I’ve reported news from Churches of Christ in 45 countries.
I’ve been equally blessed to work with professional journalists including Bobby Ross Jr., another “newspaper guy” and veteran of the AP. He and his wife, Tamie (also an experienced reporter) know that good writing requires sacrifice and struggle. Bobby Ross is never afraid to tell me when something I’ve written isn’t up to code. (“It’s not quite there yet” are the words I’ve come to dread from him — a much kinder phraseology than Fink ever used.)
The Rosses introduced me to the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and its annual journalism competition. Each year, our newspaper competes against the biggest papers in the state. The judges never quite know what to make of us — a Christian newspaper in a secular competition — but last year they awarded me second place in the “Best Reporting Portfolio” competition. I was stunned and thrilled.
“I should probably tell Fink,” I thought, though I still didn’t know how he’d react. I kept putting it off.
Then, on Jan. 14, it was too late. Fink, 80, died after a 20-year battle with prostate cancer. It was months until I found out. I hadn’t been following the wires — one of his commandments. I was ashamed.
Weeks later I was in Nepal, reporting on the work of the Eternal Threads ministry against human trafficking. (See my story and earlier blog post.) A day before flying home, I stayed with the family of Krishna Gopal, minister for a Church of Christ in the country’s capital, Kathmandu. (See the story I wrote about the church.)
Gopal took me on a quick tour of downtown Kathmandu, including Durbar Square, the home of the former king. We passed a small, ornate temple with high windows that peered down on the plaza. It was oddly familiar.
“Now this,” Gopal said, “is where they keep a little girl called …”
“The Kumari of Kathmandu!” I shouted, scarcely believing that I had stumbled onto the ground where my departed mentor stood 47 years ago — also on a reporting trip. Suddenly I was fighting back tears, trying to explain to the minister what this place meant to me.
I have many regrets in my life — things I should have said but didn’t, things I should not have said but did. I have committed sins of commission and omission. I regret not sharing my faith more fervently with others, including Fink.
Standing before the temple of the Kumari, I vowed that I would never regret the path God used to lead me to Oklahoma, and from there to places I had only dreamed about — and read about — before.
I’m a converted rascal — in more ways than one.
Here’s the end of Fink’s report from 1965. It still give me chills:
A newsman (that’s Fink, by the way) tried to enter the Durbar Square temple recently to photograph the Kumari. The little girl, dressed in red (red good luck) showed her pale face at a window corner above.
“We want to photograph the Kumari,” an interpreter shouted up.
Back came the emphatic voice of the Kumari’s guardian, the guruma: “I permit no one, not even the king, to do that.”
Then the guruma, dark-eyed and dark-haired like all people of Nepal, peeked out, too.
“The foreigner’s blue eyes are terrifying,” she said. “Take him away. I’m frightened.”
“Is the Kumari frightened too?” the interpreter asked. “Is she weeping?”
Down came the scornful reply: “How can a living goddess weep?”
(For some classic Fink, here are a few of the professor’s thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and dog washing.)