Mazel tov to Mike Fink, one of my dearest friends and one of this newspaper’s columnists, who is about to turn 90.
Mike probably doesn’t remember, but we met about 35 years ago, when, new to Rhode Island, I wanted to learn more about “Here We Live Again,” his documentary film about Holocaust survivors.
Mike and I later grew closer through the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. He had edited its annual journal, The Notes, from 1985 through 1987, and I began my run 20 years ago. A contributor to all but one of my issues, he sprinkled each with pearls of wit and wisdom.
That Mike is 15 years my senior never seemed to matter. Indeed, he has lived longer than my mother and three of my grandparents and, God willing, he may soon surpass the records set by my father and my in-laws. I expect Mike to reach the age of my family’s Arts & Crafts bungalow, which was built in 1920.
A new chapter in our relationship began in 2005, when I went to the Marriott Hotel to attend a reception for a deceased friend. I knocked on the door of the appropriate room, but nobody answered, so I went downstairs until other mourners arrived. Then I bumped into Mike, and we began yakking. I never made it to the reception. Yes, we’re still yakking.
Mike belonged to the Marriott Hotel’s health club, and he invited me to join. He swam several afternoons a week, but I chose to huff and puff on various machines. We’d frequently bump into each other, which led, inevitably, to more conversations. Eventually, I concluded, Mike’s primary exercise consisted of charming hotel guests over glasses of wine.
Beginning in 2006, Mike and I became even closer friends, when he and his older buddy, Bernie Bell, invited me to join them early on Saturday mornings for coffee and conversation. I soon learned that this was a tiny chavurah, where nearly everything anti-dogmatic could be discussed.
Eventually, we referred to this weekly gathering as “Congregation Joel Braude,” in honor of one of Mike’s most colorful friends, who never joined us. The elder Rabbi Braude, William, and his wife, Pearl, had intrigued and encouraged Mike in many ways.
Our trio expanded when we happily welcomed Mel Blake, who, like me, belonged to Temple Beth-El. Bernie and Mike belonged to Temple Emanu-El, but all of us were well acquainted with Rabbi Yehoshua Laufer of Chabad House, who frequently sought a tenth man for a minyan When Mike and Mel enjoyed stays at summer homes in South County, Bernie and I still gathered.
In 2011, after the National Museum of American Jewish History opened in Philadelphia, Mel suggested that we spend a weekend there with our wives. Indeed, he offered to drive us both ways, so the result was an almost endless yak session. Bernie, a widower, wasn’t healthy enough to join us, but the rest of us (except for Mike’s wife, whom he calls “Lady Michael”) quickly discovered that “Sir Michael” didn’t care much about eating. His diet was primarily literary!
Inevitably, Bernie, Mike, Mel and I would greet friends and acquaintances while ensconced in various coffee shops in Providence. Our favorite, with tables outdoors, was L’ Artisan, in Wayland Square.
Bernie reached 95 years of age, but Mel sadly passed away, during COVID, at only 81. Mike and I terribly miss our buddies.
Once, when Mike became seriously ill, Mel and I visited him at The Miriam Hospital to try to cheer him up. When one of his physicians arrived in his bedroom, Mike asked, “Am I going to die?”
“Don’t be silly,” said the doctor. “If you were that ill, you would have died already.”
Anybody who has read even a fraction of Mike’s many articles in local newspapers (Jewish and general) knows what enchants him. Just about everything! Some examples: his family (including parents, uncles and aunts, brothers, their wives, their children and grandchildren); his upbringing in Providence, including former girlfriends; Yale, including his lifelong buddies and studying in Paris as a junior; and travels to Israel, Rome and various islands. Oh, did I leave out patriotism, literature, allegory, cinema, cartoons, nature and fashion?
Inevitably, Mike’s thoughts return to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he taught liberal arts for 65 years, until his retirement a year ago.
Mike not only befriended and mentored generations of students, but he also officiated at a few of their weddings.
Mike, now as sharp as ever, was not ready to retire. He’s continuing to teach at the Providence Art Club and lecture to all kinds of groups.
I too enjoyed teaching in an art school for several years, and I’d like to believe that some of my efforts as a writer and editor have also been productive. But I also know that Mike has been one of my greatest teachers.
Yes, I had a few favorites in high school and in college, but none of my graduate school professors ever came close to Mike’s humanity: his range of interests and his combination of humor, kindness, modesty and sweetness. Perhaps Mike has tolerated me for so long because he can see some gradual improvement.
Mike helped rescue RISD’s Carr House, and its lounge was named in his honor. As its faculty sponsor, he also found a home for the Pigeon Club. Unfortunately, however, Mike never received an honorary degree, a proclamation, or even a reserved parking space from RISD.
Consequently, I nominated myself to attend one of Mike’s last lectures and to address his students. I tried to explain how fortunate they and RISD have been. Indeed, how happy and grateful I have been to be Mike’s buddy, colleague and apprentice!
GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.