Happy Fernandez, city leader, activist, dead at 74

Happy Fernandez
Happy Fernandez
Posted: January 21, 2013

Happy Craven Fernandez, 74, former Philadelphia city councilwoman, community activist, and college president, died Saturday, Jan. 19, of complications from a stroke at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.

Dr. Fernandez underwent successful lung surgery Jan. 10, but suffered the stroke moments before being released from a hospital last Sunday. Her family reported Saturday that she died peacefully.

"We are all so sad, but can smile when we think of the great days together and the great contributions she made over the years," her family wrote in an e-mail to friends.

Mayor Nutter on Saturday said Dr. Fernandez "cared passionately about the city and especially its children." He added: "She always acted with grace, a smile and kindness. I will miss her greatly."

Born Gladys Vivian Craven in 1939, the Omaha, Neb., native combined a folksy Midwestern nickname with her married surname to create the unforgettable moniker Happy Fernandez.

She moved east in 1954, raising a family and earning four academic degrees before rising to prominence in the city's civic, cultural, and political life. There were some firsts:

She was the first woman to seek a major-party nomination to be mayor of Philadelphia mayor. That was in 1999.

"It is way past time that qualified women step up," she said at a City Hall news conference.

As the ninth president of the Moore College of Art & Design, she introduced graduate programs and the college's first coed education degree programs and embraced the future by joining with Apple to provide iPads to all undergraduates.

A lifelong advocate for public schools, she founded and led the Parents Union for Public Schools and the Children's Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

"She was a terrific city councilwoman. She was smart and had courage," said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who served as mayor during Dr. Fernandez's time on City Council. "She stood up to all the special interests. It was because of her courage that we were able to turn the city around."

Dr. Fernandez helped cut local government costs by supporting the privatization of city services, he said. "The unions didn't like it," Rendell said. "Happy was so determined to change things and so determined to bring justice. . . . She had a good sense of humor, but she was so focused and determined - that determination is what I will remember the most."

During her seven years on Council from 1992 to 1999, Dr. Fernandez also drew criticism for the low profile she kept while in office, introducing "Operation Crosswalk," a crackdown on errant bicyclists and jaywalkers.

"I know a lot of people pooh-pooh and say it's a silly thing," Dr. Fernandez said. But she countered that the law caused pedestrian deaths to drop by a third in 1997.

Dr. Fernandez also shepherded into law proposals to keep teenagers away from cigarette vending machines, and the creation of zero-tolerance-for-graffiti zones.

"I was not in Council to serve my colleagues or to be loved," she told detractors. "I'm in public life to get things done."

And she did, in many walks of life, while at the same time inspiring others to do likewise, said Frances Graham, chair of the Moore College board of trustees. Graham worked closely with Dr. Fernandez during the 13 years she led the college from 1999 to 2012.

"She thought internally a lot. She was a reserved person, perhaps shy at times, but when she decided to do something, it got done," Graham said. "She would assign you something, and you would get it done. You could never say no to Happy."

Graham said Dr. Fernandez worked hard to advance other women so they could attain official standing and confidence in their ability to contribute.

"She was a wonderful mentor," Graham said. "I am a graduate of Moore. She brought me on the board and brought me forward."

During her tenure at Moore, the college completed a $30 million capital campaign; introduced the Visionary Woman Awards, an event honoring female leaders in the arts; and secured more than $3.5 million in new scholarships and fellowships, said Roy Wilbur, director of marketing and communications.

"Happy Fernandez will be remembered by the entire Moore community as a leader who cared deeply about young women, the arts, and the City of Philadelphia," said Cecelia Fitzgibbon, college president.

"She devoted her life to making a difference, and was a role model who will be sorely missed. We are committed to continuing the quality of arts education that she led and in doing so hope to honor her memory."

Dr. Fernandez earned a bachelor's degree in biblical history and literature from Wellesley College in 1961; a master's degree in teaching from Harvard University in 1962; a master's degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1970; and a doctorate of education from Temple University in 1984.

She taught for 18 years at the School of Social Administration at Temple.

Her interest in public education led her in 1976 to write a handbook, "Parents Organizing to Improve Schools." Five years later, she wrote "The Child Advocacy Handbook," still in print.

"My mom was an accomplished leader and educator in Philadelphia for many, many years, and we take great pride in her contributions to the city, but for us, she's our mom and we'll miss our family time with her," said David Fernandez, 46, one of Dr. Fernandez's three sons. "That's how we remember her, being an affirmative, caring mom who encouraged us to be the best."

At various times, she served on 30 boards and advisory committees, including the Parkway Council Foundation, Philagrafika, the Association of Independent Schools of Art and Design, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia 2035.

Dr. Fernandez overcame childhood polio and went on to become an avid tennis player, according to her family. Her first visit to Philadelphia in 1955 was to play in the National Junior Girls Championships.

Dr. Fernandez met her husband, the Rev. Richard Fernandez, in 1959 in a chance encounter during a softball game at a Christian conference. They married in 1961 and made their home in University City for 40 years.

Surviving, in addition to her husband and son, are sons John and Rich and eight grandchildren. The family on Saturday was making funeral arrangements.


Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 215-854-2611

or bcook@phillynews.com.

Staff writers Maria Panaritis and Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman contributed to this article.

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