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Obituary: Sam Fink

Sam Fink, a great American calligrapher and illustrator, died in Israel at the age of 95 surrounded by his family. Born on May 27, 1916, he was a national treasure. A multi-talented artist of inimitable range, he first learned to hand-letter from his father, sitting hour after hour practicing the craft before becoming a master calligrapher and illustrator. After marrying his beloved wife Adelle in 1940, they raised two sons, David and Mace, while he studied at the National Academy and the Art Students’ League in New York. He served in Italy during the Second World War with the 88th Infantry and came home a master sergeant. For two decades he worked as an art director at the world-renowned advertising agency Young & Rubicam, working in their London and Chicago offices although based primarily in New York. For the 40 years after his retirement, he threw himself into publishing one book after the other. The subject was always freedom. For him, the greatest words on the subject lay in The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, The Book of Exodus and finally in Annie Dillard’s Give It All, Give It Now.

His first edition of The Constitution was published in pen and ink by Random House in 1987 where he was edited by the legendary editor Bob Loomis. Almost 20 years later, it was published in full lush color by Welcome Books with whom he worked continually thereafter. Encouraging teachers and parents to introduce Sam’s book to their children, Ian Crouch, reviewing for The New Yorker, said, “the book contains every word of the Constitution, written in Fink’s distinctive hand, along with boldly colored illustrations. Fink is at once reverent and mischievous. Throughout, we see his gentle but strongly-felt patriotism, along with flashes of humor.” Selected by American Compass, Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Guild, History Book Club, Military Book Club, heralded by Ray Bradbury who said it should be “in every home in America,” featured on NBC’S Sunday Weekend and CNN, The Constitution went on to be published in several formats. Folios from the Constitution Limited Edition went on permanent display at The Supreme Court in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 2006.

The Book of Exodus followed swiftly as the watercolors were retrieved from Jerusalem. Originally conceived as a gift to his family, now living in Israel, a vast ocean away from his home in New York City, it, too, became available as both a book and a limited edition box of folios.

“The power of God is in the sky,” he told Brad Minor, editor of American Compass, about The Book of Exodus. “I made a vow to myself, ‘Sam, you will paint 40 skies, one for each chapter of Exodus, and in the sky you will embroider the delicacy of the words in both English and Hebrew. The wisdom of the words and the beauty of the skies occupied me for some four years. Exodus is a cry for freedom, and that’s what it is all about. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘this nation shall have a new birth of freedom,’ which to me means freedom needs to be born anew in each generation, and I guess each generation has to earn it. For me, the freedom is in the work, to love the work. To this day, I love work, I enjoy it, and I’m free.”

In 2010 he was himself profiled in Thomas Sanders’ The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II. Sam’s last exhibition opened on May 15, 2011 at Temple Beth-El in Great Neck where he lived most of his life. The words he most quoted in the last months of his life were Annie Dillard’s: “Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.” He leaves behind his son David, daughter-in-law Miriam, seven grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren and countless friends all of whom have and treasure his famous lavishly illustrated letters.