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Irving Fink on love, politics and aging

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Irving Fink, aged 92, reflects back on his life. - MARK LEE
  • Mark Lee
  • Irving Fink, aged 92, reflects back on his life.

After all, if we live long enough we get old.
And most dislike the alternative.
-Irving Fink, from his poem "I object to 'senior citizens'"

Rare is the 92-year-old - only about 0.63 percent of the population reaches 90. Far rarer is the 92-year-old left-wing Jewish lawyer who still goes to work every day and writes poetry on the side.

That exclusive club belongs to Irving Fink, who moved to Indianapolis in 1945 and is still setting up corporations and writing wills, even though "most of my clients have died off or moved to Florida."

Fink is in his Northeastside kitchen with his wife of 67 years, Bea, serving up a lunch of sausages and peppers and talking about his new book, To Stretch a Heart and Other Poems. He's been writing poetry since the early 1940s, most of it in longhand. His daughter Elaine said, if he gave her his files, she'd see that everything got typed. He did. The next thing he knew, he had an 80-page book, designed by his grandson Gideon.

They printed enough books for the family, and some to sell. They're available at lulu.com. In his poems, Fink muses about love, family, nature, politics and aging. As you might imagine, he includes some meditations on dying.

When new infirmities strike me
And I know I'm losing the race
I hope I'll remain determined
To face what comes with grace.
-from "On Reaching Ninety-Two"

"I came home one day and said to Bea, 'I finished a poem today,'" he recalled. "She said, 'Are you dying again?'"

Irv Fink grew up in Newton Falls, Ohio, near Youngstown. He liked to memorize poems, and his brother Stan liked to hear him recite poems. That established his lifelong love of poetry.

Rarer than 90-year-olds are the number of people who make a living as a poet, so Fink went to Northwestern University to become an actor. As a sophomore, he developed an interest in saving the world - and theater lost its importance.

He worked on newspapers, as an organizer for the Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, spent four years in the military and, along the way, met Beatrice Borman of Toledo. (Today, they have five children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.)

When Fink finished his military service, he didn't know what he wanted to do. His father suggested law school, saying it would be good background for other fields even if he never practiced.

He went to University of Michigan for law school. After graduation, a friend he'd met in the military enticed him to come to Indianapolis and practice law.

"We weren't prepared for how southern a city Indianapolis was," Fink said, launching into a story about his friend, who owned a downtown restaurant and had a waitress who quit rather than serve black customers. During the second civil case Fink ever tried, the opposing lawyer called him a communist.

Fink said he's always had a strong sense of justice, though he's not sure about its origins since he grew up in an all-white community. His son Hugh, a comedian/comedy writer, shared this remembrance:

"In the early '70s, my dad took me to the Butler Fieldhouse for a Butler basketball game. The Bulldogs were playing against St. Joseph's, whose star player was Jimmy Thordsen, this amazing player from Puerto Rico. After Thordsen scored several buckets in a row, some burly guy sitting right behind us heckled him by yelling out an offensive racial slur that included the n-word.

My dad whipped his head around and just stared at the guy for a few seconds, without saying a word. The guy, visibly ashamed by my father's look, shut up the rest of the game. At that moment, my dad seemed like a real life Atticus Finch."

In the early 1950s, Irv and Bea were among the founders of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (now the ACLU of Indiana). Having the ICLU around came in handy when Bill Chaney, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, came into Fink's office. The Klan wanted to protest school busing in Anderson but was denied a permit. Chaney wanted Fink as his mouthpiece.

"I told him, 'Before you go any further, there's two things you ought to know - one, I'm Jewish, and, two, I hate everything you guys stand for,'" Fink said. "He said, 'We know all about you, but we'd like to hire you.' I said, 'Let me think about it. I'll call you.'"

He went home that night and told Bea. She said she didn't want the Klan capitalizing on her husband's good name.

He told her: "If I represent them, you'll be able to get that new couch you've been wanting." She responded: "I don't want a couch with Klan money."

The ICLU took the case.

Fink became known around town for hitchhiking to work. He didn't thumb a ride so much as he stood and waited for someone to pick him up. They always did.

That became the subject of a poem called "Hitchhiker":
While standing
Along Allisonville Road
Waiting for a ride
So many cars
With only a driver
Pass - Alas
I find that I
Can't help but wish
They all run
Out of gas.

Over the years, Fink made his way downtown to try his share of memorable cases. He represented Crispus Attucks students who were refused service at a downtown restaurant. A Jehovah's Witness fired from his school principal job because he wouldn't say the Pledge of Allegiance. Eight Marian College students who picketed the school president's house because he'd fired a teacher who was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

He also remembers the case of a woman who went to see him because she wanted to divorce her husband immediately. When he asked the standard questions - like, when was the last time she and her husband had sex - she looked at her watch.

"Most of the cases that meant the most to me," he said, "are the cases where I didn't earn a dime."

Spoken like a poet.

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