Originally published in the ADN’s We Alaskans magazine on Jan. 31, 1988
Everybody knows Anchorage Mayor Tom Fink has a big family. Just how big, and who they are, has never been written about in detail.
So shortly after the mayor had settled into the big corner office on the eighth floor of the Hill Building, we decided it was time to find out more about the mayor’s family. We called his wife, Pat, and asked if we could introduce her and her family to Anchorage with a story on all the Finks. As young adults, the Fink children all lead independent lives. Meeting them might shed some light on our city’s leader.
Pat Fink consented. She gave us the names and telephone numbers of her children 11 total. And we settled on a day to drop by and meet her.
Pat Fink, 58, is the petite, snowy-haired matriarch of the Fink clan.
She was an eighth-grader at Pearce elementary in small-town Illinois in 1942 when she “set her cap” for young Tom, then a freshman at Chillicothe Township High. When she was a sophomore at “Chilli High,” he finally asked her to go steady. All the details what she wore, where it happened, what he said were recorded in her diary.
She cried the day he graduated, sure she’d never see him again he was headed for college in Peoria, 18 miles away. But she needn’t have worried. He got a part-time job driving a soft drink truck, and when he came through Chilli making deliveries, he always stopped at her house for lunch.
Seven and a half years after first going steady, they married. She doesn’t remember that proposal, “We just fell into it, I guess. We’d known each other so long.” By now he was in law school at the University of Illinois. She’d gone off to school in Iowa, taking mostly “sewing and cooking and typing,” staying away from Chilli and Tom to make sure she really loved him. After two years, she decided she did. She went to work, saving every penny she earned for their future together. By 1951, she had $2,000; saddled with law school expenses, Tom had nothing. He’d sworn he wouldn’t marry until after law school, but “he couldn’t stand it without me, at least that’s what I tell myself.” He came down to Chilli on a semester break, and on Feb. 3, 1951, wed his bride at 9 a.m. nuptials. They drove a borrowed car to a deserted resort in the Ozarks for a one-week honeymoon; then Tom took the new Mrs. Fink back to Champaign with him.
Deborah was their firstborn. When she was only a few months old, Tom flew off to Alaska, alone. “He didn’t have a job, he didn’t have any money,” Pat remembers. “It was just something he had to do.” She moved home with her parents until a few months later, when Tom sent for her.
That was 35 years and 10 more babies ago. In that time, Pat Fink had spent nearly a decade pregnant; when her lastborn arrived in 1970, her firstborn was graduating from high school. Her youngest child’s commencement this June ends a 22year era of Fink children at West High.
Think of it: 11 children, with an 18year span in their ages. Think of the dinner dishes, the bicycles, the skis. The loads of laundry, the loaves of bread, the bunches of toothbrushes in the bathroom.
Or . . . think of the permanent fund dividends. In 1982, the year of the $1,000 dividend, the Fink household would have pulled down $13,000, enough for a down payment on a house. Daughter Jody says each Fink got his or her own check; hers went into the bank for college.
The Finks didn’t need those dividend checks for a down payment on a house. They’d been living in their cream-and-brown two-story home 22 years already, down 23rd Street from the Sunrise Bakery.
It used to be a fourplex with an apartment on the main floor, an apartment on the second floor and two efficiencies in the basement. As the family grew, tenants were evicted, walls were knocked down, and the family spread out.
Strong Catholics, the Finks happily welcomed their ever-increasing brood. Both Pat and Tom had only one sibling when they grew up. When Tom was asked if he’d do it all over again, 11 kids and all, he said: “Yes, if that’s the way the cards fell.”
Pat sounds a bit more exuberant. “Six girls and five boys I call that family planning!” she says. “Oh, sometimes I look back and I wonder how I did it . . .” but there’s not a touch of weariness or regret in her voice.
She’s perched on the couch, looking bright and proper in a royal blue sweater and navy slacks. We’re sitting in the spot reserved for Tom, a dusty blue easy chair with a crocheted doily over the back. The living room is cozy, with healthy African violets here and there, and a big fireplace. Pat’s collection of plates, gathered from her trips with Tom to insurance conventions, fill the dining room wall.
She says becoming Anchorage’s first lady has changed her life very little. “Oh, maybe we’ll have to go out to dinner a little more,” she thinks. “We never eat out. I still cook every night.” Tonight it’s a large pot roast; “We’re big on leftovers.”
She says her husband has never been a workaholic; it’s been his custom to get home from work right around 6 p.m. “He’s coming home a little later right now,” she says, “but once things settle down, I think he’ll be coming home earlier.”
We ask Pat for a roll call of the kids. With a deep breath, she begins. By birth order, there’s:
• Deborah, 35, a co-owner of Jafi’s books in Spenard.
• An, 33, a co-owner of Jafi’s books.
• Maureen, 31, a travel agent in downtown Anchorage.
• Mark, 29, an elementary school science teacher in Anchorage.
• Mike, 27, an owner of a collections agency in Spenard.
• Katie, 25, a telephone reservationist for Alaska Airlines in Anchorage.
• Tom, 24, an auditor for Coopers and Lybrand in Los Angeles.
• Matthew, 22, a senior at Arizona State, in business.
• Josh, 20, a junior at Notre Dame, in philosophy.
• Jody, 19, a sophomore studying biology and math at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
• Kelly, 17, a senior at West High.
Four have graduated from college (Deborah, Mark, Mike and Tom), and three are still going (Matthew, Josh and Jody). Three studied business (Mike, Tom and Matthew), and three (Deborah, An and Mike) bought or built their own businesses, located in Spenard commercial buildings owned by their father.
Three skipped or never finished college, two are in the travel industry, which Kelly also plans to enter. Six still live or work in Spenard, practically within a stone’s throw of their old home. Only three Tom, Mike and Jody say they may not make Anchorage a permanent home. Four are married, and to date have produced four grandchildren, with another due in March. Only one is sure he wants a big family: “eight kids, maybe adopt some,” says youngest son Josh. Mark, still single, volunteers that he doesn’t believe in birth control, sounding much like his father he’ll accept however many come along. Most fall in around two or three kids, if they can afford them, while Deborah isn’t sure she’ll have any.
Surely some of their thinking on producing future Finks comes from memories of their days together on West 23rd Street. Culled from interviews with all the Finks except the mayor (Tom Fink says he prefers to keep his political and family life separate), a picture emerges of a boisterous, lively family of 11 very distinct children, ruled by a stern father and a softhearted mother.
They never ate together, except four times a year Christmas breakfast, Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving dinner and Easter breakfast. Every other day, Pat kept dinner hot in the kitchen, and the kids ate as they came home. She and Tom ate together, alone in the dining room. The one exception was summer and early fall, when Tom barbecued out in the back yard.
There were chores for everyone, though most of the Fink children admit the chores rarely got done. Mike, the second-oldest son, remembers a list of jobs posted on the refrigerator door that the kids were supposed to rotate through. Deborah, the oldest, remembers that the list lasted about three weeks.
“The house was always a mess,” she says with a laugh. Except for the main floor, that is. The rule was, that floor had to be clean when their father came home. About 30 seconds before he stepped through the door, the call went out, “He’s in the driveway!” and like a small army, young Finks would scatter, pushing things under the couch and into closets and behind doors. When Tom strolled in, the place looked presentable, and everyone a bit flushed.
Her children say Pat tried to get more help with the housework. Like ironing: “We each had to iron 10 things,” An recalls. “There was always a run on the handkerchiefs.” Deborah jokes about ironing socks.
Or vacuuming. “She’d ask, and we’d say “Aw, Mooom,’ and she’d say, “All right, I’ll do it myself,’ " a daughter recalls. They say they all took their turn sweeping the front walk in summer and shoveling it in winter.
Christmas meant presents, lots of presents. Not because the family was rich, says Mike, but because each kid got something for every other kid. That’s more than 100 presents right there, paid for with money from part-time jobs. Not until three years ago did the family limit present-giving to an exchange of names.
Birthdays, on the other hand, were a much less auspicious occasion. There were so many of them, for one thing. There’d be a birthday cake, and maybe a present or two from a brother or sister. Last year, says Deborah, they completely forgot one brother.
Nobody but Mom admits to a life of hand-me-downs. Pat says it was true of everything clothes, bikes, skis, you name it. She flips through one of her picture albums, filled with her kids’ school photos. She laughs at how the same shirt shows up on one boy one year, another boy the next year.
When they were teens, getting the car was a nearly impossible feat. There were two in the family: Dad’s, which only Dad got to drive, and Mom’s, which had to be shared among Mom and any other licensed driver in the house. At one time, a son remembers, Pat competed with six kids with licenses.
Summer vacations meant trips to Homer and occasionally Denali National Park, with everybody stacked in the back of a station wagon. Recalling a few trips, Katie scrunches up her shoulders and leans to the left, imitating a sardine. To this day, whenever she sees a station wagon, she vows secretly never to own one.
Only Mom and Dad ever left the state for vacation, about twice a year, usually to an insurance convention somewhere. They left their kids with a baby sitter, a woman who was “always 85 years old,” recalls Mike, with a name like Ruby or Emma, either mean or a lousy cook. Mike tells of stashing half-cooked hamburgers into his pants and excusing himself to go to the bathroom, where he’d flush them away.
The only out-of-state vacation they ever took together was to Hawaii in 1979, commemorating their parents’ 28th wedding anniversary, when father Tom paid their way. “It was so wonderful,” remembers Pat, “seeing them all have such a good time. They’d never even seen sand before, most of them.”
But Hawaii was a special treat. Most of life was lived on a much more mundane level, right here in Spenard. Mike thinks that’s why so many of them are still in Alaska perhaps they haven’t seen enough of the world to venture forth. Most have traveled in the Lower 48; the one exception is Maureen, who struck out for a round-the-world trip with a girlfriend right out of high school, and ended up as a travel agent who takes trips whenever she can. But even she calls Anchorage home.
Deborah says she’s still here because of her family. “We’re a very tight, close family. . . . It gives me a lot of confidence,” she says.
But growing up in a family of 13 was chaotic, they all admit. “There were always kids getting hurt or in trouble, always kids running around,” says Mike. “Our house was where everyone played, and got into fights.” Josh remembers sharing a converted living room with four brothers, a bed placed against each wall. He got his own room for the first time in 10th grade.
“A lot of it was just finding some space for yourself,” remembers Deborah. “Some quiet space. I used to crawl under the baby’s crib whenever it napped. It was the only quiet place in the house. And then there was the attic closet this three-by-three-foot space. I think we all spent some time up there.”
Tom remembers high school graduation, and how badly he wanted his parents to come. He knew his dad was hopeless. After the first few, the elder Fink quit going. Young Tom thinks it was because people would hassle him about politics in public, and he didn’t like it. But Mom agreed to go, so long as she could leave as soon as he got his diploma. “Oh, no,” he argued, “You’ve got to stay there until the very end, and hug me like all the other moms . . .”
The Fink children say their father placed a premium on independence, and fostered it in all of them. Their impression is they got more freedom sooner than their friends did; when other kids were confined to one block, the Finks could already cross the street.
But their father’s idea of discipline was to take away privileges they’d gotten used to. “He never spanked us,” Josh remembers. “He put us on restriction.”
“I was in trouble a lot,” says Tom. “I’m really like him very, very stubborn. I’d want reasons for why he was saying what he was saying, hounding him why, why, why. Every time we were around each other, we’d argue. So the point was, just don’t be around him, and the house was big enough for that. It’s a lot better now. He knows I can just walk out.”
At times their father’s push for independence was intimidating, they say. Like when he taught them to ski. “One day you got skis, the next day he took you to the top of the mountain. That’s how we learned,” says Deborah.
A childhood bookworm, she remembers the time her father decided she was old enough to ride her bike downtown to the library, alone. She was in the third or fourth grade at the time. Tom Fink took her aside, drew her a map to the library, and told her to go by herself.
“I was terrified. None of my friends could even leave the block, and he’s sending me all the way downtown . . . but I made it. I mastered it. Wasn’t long before I was wanting something new to do . . .”
But her father’s emphasis on independence worked two ways for Deborah. When she was desperate for a new pair of boots, the kind that were popular instead of the clunkers she had, he sat her down and made her listen to a cassette tape that lectured her on being her own person, on not following the crowd. “I don’t know how many times I had to listen to that tape . . .”
An feels family life was very secure.
“Dad was always the rock of Gibraltar,” she says. “If you needed him, he was there.” She tells of a traffic accident she was in at 19; within seconds, she says, her father was on the scene, and had a brother photographing the accident for insurance purposes. She remembers especially that her father gave her his gloves to wear, a gesture that “made me feel so loved.”
Pressed to say what it was they learned from their father, every Fink has a different answer.
“My dad was definitely the one I learned obedience from,” says Jody. “He really affected my morals and beliefs, going to church every weekend, being a Catholic. Everyone is really liberal (at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where she is a sophomore). I see myself as really conservative.”
“I’d say he definitely taught me to stick up for what I believe in, regardless,” says Matthew. “I don’t ever get pushed around by anybody. But that can be good and bad.”
“There’s a certain steadiness to his convictions,” Josh offers. As senior class president at West High, Josh was organizing a student walkout over an issue the seniors were hot about; the principal called the elder Fink and told him if Josh led the walkout, he’d be suspended. When he got home, Josh says all his father told him was “do what you think is right.”
“Even when everyone is against him,” says Josh. “He doesn’t believe in current attitudes and trends. He feels convictions are rooted in much deeper beliefs.”
“He makes you work for what you get,” says Mike, who claims to get no financial break for the commercial space he rents from the elder Fink. “From my father?” he says with an easy laugh.
“One of the big things,” says Tom, “is really being aware of your money situation. There’s a lot of emphasis on not going out and blowing it on something . . . being very money-conscious.”
His children say their father practices what he preaches. Not until this last Christmas did Tom Fink get a new pair of skis; for 20 years, they say, he wore the same old strap-on Head skis, always arguing that as long as they still worked, he didn’t need a new pair.
Mark recalls an emphasis on family he says he’s pretty much adopted. But he laughs when he remembers one of his father’s dictums: “My father said if you were a boy, you could get married or become a priest. If you were a girl, you could get married or be a nun.” Nothing in between. Deborah, the oldest and still single, is an occasional target for her father’s barbs, says one brother.
Almost every Fink confesses to a close, confidante-type relationship with their mother, and something much more formal with their father.
Pat Fink sometimes intervened on their behalf, but not too often, since she knew persuading her husband to change his mind was not easy. She remembers the business about the crewcuts. Up to the sixth grade, every boy wore his hair shaved short; it was one of Tom’s rules. Finally Pat intervened: “Let me cut it,” she said, trying to leave a little more hair for her sons’ sake. He’d say if it wasn’t short enough, he’d take them to a barber.
Though most of the Fink children say their father has mellowed over the years, his influence is still obvious. Son Tom tells of a recent conflict.
A tradition around the Fink household is for each college graduate to get a trip paid by their parents, usually to Europe. When Tom graduated from the University of Southern California in 1986, he says he lined up a job at Coopers and Lybrand, “one of the big eight accounting firms,” and convinced the firm to delay hiring him for six months. He wanted to go to Africa, tales of which he’d heard from Maureen.
He ran into flak when he told his father of his plan. “He said, “If you can go to work in January, you better do it. Don’t wait until July.’ I threw out “What about my trip?’ I wanted to go for two months. He said he wasn’t going to support me.”
Tom went right to work, and says he’ll get his trip to Africa later.
Finding their father mayor of Anchorage has put most of the Fink children in an awkward position. It’s not that he’s new to politics -- some of them can remember when he was a legislator in Juneau, and everyone remembers the political campaigns for governor and mayor. But this is the first time he’s succeeded at winning a local office.
One reason is most of them resent the scrutiny he receives from Anchorage newspapers. “Why should I talk to your newspaper?” said Matthew, when asked for an interview for this story. Even thoughtful, philosophical Josh thinks coverage of the recent flap over firing and hiring a new library head was slanted against his father. Pat Fink is sincere when she says her children “have been hurt by the coverage in the newspapers.”
“Is he going to be hurt by this (article), when it comes out?” asks Mark. A loyal group, they are willing to level some criticism at their father for being a little too stubborn or old-fashioned, but they have trouble when somebody else does it, especially if they perceive it as unfair criticism.
The other reason is they are a pretty independent bunch. They don’t cater to being known as Tom Fink’s sons or daughters. “This first-family business is for the birds,” says Mark. “Tom Fink got elected mayor, and that’s that. It doesn’t really affect my life.”
Katie and Maureen are grateful for the camouflage offered by their married names. Katie tells of an annoying experience in which she was trying to cash a check made out to her maiden name; she had identification verifying both her maiden and married name. The teller balked, until a supervisor was called, asked her if she “was really Tom Fink’s daughter,” then cashed it without hesitation. By that time, Katie was ready to rip up the check and forget it.
“It was a hard thing growing up,” says son Tom. “The name recognition . . . you had to watch out for what you said. My name is exactly the same as his. It would be good to get a job up (in Alaska), but that’s one of the reasons I came down (to Los Angeles), to do it on my own.”
“I’m going to make it on my own,” says Matthew, “not because I’m Tom Fink’s son.” “It’s real dehumanizing,” says Deborah. “I feel good about my life who I am. And I’m proud of my father for pursuing his own dreams. But I’m proud of my own dreams, too.”
Deborah has been the most active in her father’s past campaigns usually working as an organizer and coordinator for the volunteer effort. But the work exhausts her. “I lose touch with that part of my life that is most important to me.”
The only Fink who sounds inclined to go into politics is Josh, although he finds the field problematic. “You’re aiming at the lowest common denominator,” he says. “You’re selling yourself, like a pair of jeans, or soap.” And yet, he reflects, “I think I can play that game. I think I’d be good at it.”
An says she finds politics distasteful: “All kinds of immoral things go on.”
Son Tom is practically apolitical. “I don’t know who’s running for president,” he says, “and I don’t care. I’ll probably vote Republican, they’re the good guys . . .”
Mark thinks most in the family follow in their father’s conservative footsteps; Deborah laughs at that suggestion. “I don’t think we all vote Republican, by any means,” she says. “As for me, I think Ronald Reagan is a terrorist.”
If there’s one bit of political advice some of Tom Fink’s children would give him, it would be to spruce up his skills at playing the political game. They think he’s too honest, inclined to tell people what he thinks rather than what they want to hear. It gets him into too much trouble.
“Dad talks too much,” says Mike. “You ask him a simple question, and he’ll spend half an hour answering it. And he says the same thing to everyone. But if you’re trying to get both sides to like you, being a little vague on your answer can help. He’s not like that.”
“He won’t say what you’d like to hear, he’ll say something a lot more definite . . .” says Tom. “He needs to be more like a politician and play the games.”
Pat Fink is talking about the dream house she hopes to build someday something like an English cottage, with four bedrooms, and bay windows. She loves looking through magazines and planning it out. It would have lots of garden space that’s her passion. Where to build it is a problem. Not too far out, she says, because then the kids wouldn’t drop by so often. She sees some of them every day. Deborah and An come by for breakfast and sometimes lunch, she babysits one of An’s two children on Fridays, Mike and Maureen often drop by. They know they can always grab a bite to eat here, Pat says, smiling when she notes that “somebody’s already been into the scalloped potatoes” today.
Our talk is interrupted briefly by a visit from Kelly. She slides into the room with reluctance; it’s clear her mother made her come directly home from school to be interviewed.
“I don’t want to do this,” Kelly says, eyeing her mom. “Come here,” says Pat Fink, patting the couch beside her. Kelly drops down in a huff.
She says her ambitions are to become a flight attendant or a cruise director. She can’t wait to get out of high school, get out of Anchorage, “get some big-city action.”
What was it like, growing up the last of 11? Haven’t her folks mellowed by now?
Her blue eyes flash no. “I haven’t fully lived my teenage years,” she starts up, then stops. ”I think it was a lot harder on the girls . . .”
“No comment,” she says, looking at her mother.
Pat Fink tries to cajole her daughter, telling her how much easier it is for her to get the car with no other kids at home.
“Yeah, and then it’s 20 questions,” Kelly says. “We have to have these ridiculous discussions . . .”
Kelly doesn’t stay long; she’s got friends waiting for her in a pickup outside. One more question before she leaves; how has she been influenced by her father?
“I’m liberal,” she says. “I won’t ever be as conservative as he is.”
It’s getting late, and Pat has that roast to put on. As she walks us to the door, she apologizes profusely for not getting some cookies baked for our visit. “Next time,” she says with a warm smile.
Kathleen McCoy is editor of We Alaskans. Michael Penn and Bill Roth are Anchorage Daily News staff writers. Jacques Picard worked as a photographer on Tom Fink’s mayoral campaign.