Family, community say goodbye to Happy Fernandez

Mayor Nutter embraces Dick Fernandez during the service in Germantown. Nutter had served on City Council with Happy Fernandez.
Mayor Nutter embraces Dick Fernandez during the service in Germantown. Nutter had served on City Council with Happy Fernandez.
Posted: January 29, 2013

Happy Gladys Vivian Craven Fernandez made her name in Philadelphia in three chapters: first as an education and peace activist, then as a city councilwoman and unsuccessful candidate for mayor, and then as president of Moore College of Art & Design.

Those accomplishments no doubt brought a full house to her memorial service Sunday at the Germantown Jewish Centre, but it was the stories of her faith, her love, and her foibles that brought tears and laughter to a crowd that included former Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Nutter, and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D., Phila.).

The setting and the service itself, a "celebration of life" led by rabbis and Christian ministers, reflected the Fernandez family's deep interest in religions beyond their own Christian faith. Happy Fernandez's husband, Dick, an ordained minister, worked for 25 years with the Northwest Interfaith Movement. Their own faith, he said, was made stronger by an appreciation of other traditions.

Nutter called Fernandez focused, determined, and stubborn, and said her smile could light up a room. "She gave her all to the city. She gave her life to the city in so many different ways."

The Rev. Susan Teegen-Case, a family friend and executive director of ArtWell, said she witnessed a "powerful river of support and love" as friends visited during Fernandez's last days in hospice. "Over and over," she said, "I would hear people say, 'She changed my life. She brought out the best in me.' "

Fernandez, 73, died Jan. 19 of a stroke she suffered as she was being discharged from the hospital after Jan. 10 surgery for lung cancer. The cancer was discovered just before Christmas when doctors X-rayed what turned out to be a benign nodule on her chin.

Years earlier, she had told her family in a supplement to her living will she did not want insurance or public money "wasted" on her if she no longer had the mental or physical ability to care for herself.

A survivor of polio at age 10, she said she had considered every day a gift and felt ready to die if something terminal struck. Ever the activist, she said in the document she wanted "any public or private family or insurance dollars to be used to nurture the development of the next generation, here in the United States or in other democracies such as India, who are faced with huge problems of poverty and the mistreatment of women and children."

Thankful that she had made a difficult decision easier, her family made the letter available to those at the service.

David Fernandez said his mother had taught him not only about marriage and courage, but how to turn disappointment into something positive. She turned to tennis to recover from polio and was an enthusiastic, lifelong player. Her mayoral loss became a blessing, he said, when she joined Moore.

She wasn't perfect, though. She was so focused, or maybe preoccupied, that she often ran out of gas. "For a time, my dad found it easier to take her car and put gas in it for her than to be on call for roadside assistance," he said.

Rich Fernandez said his mother's last words to him and David were, "Always remember." What he remembered was a woman who chased every ball in tennis, ate peanut butter and jelly on toast for breakfast, loved family vacations without television at a New Hampshire lake, and always said "hello" and "good night" with a hug, a smile, and "beautiful blue eyes twinkling with pride."

John Fernandez, another son, joked that his mother would have wanted the family to apologize for her penchant for putting the entire text of an e-mail in the subject line. She also would want everyone to "elect a great Democrat" as president in 2016. Glancing at Rendell, he said she would have said, "I expect HER – sorry Ed – I expect HER, to be supported by all of you on my behalf."

Dick Fernandez revealed that his wife, who had degrees from Wellesley, Harvard, Penn, and Temple, called him Pooh Bear and allowed him to call her Bo Peep.

She was offended when Jane Fonda, who had been working with her husband on a project, called the house one night when he was out of town. "Please let him know that Jane Fonda called. That's F-O-N-D-A," the actress spelled. Happy Fernandez was still seething two days later when her husband returned. "What does she think I am, a bimbo?" she asked.

In 1987, he said, she refused to trash then-Councilman David Cohen in exchange for the help of a prominent politician in her City Council race. She lost.

The couple had met at a New England Student Christian Movement softball game while in college. They spent 51 years together. In his speech, written as a letter to his wife, Dick Fernandez said:

"We've had only a couple of bumps along our journey, but we have surely enjoyed more sunshine and cool breezes than one would have any right to expect. Someone said, "The way to love someone is to lightly run your fingers over the person's soul until you find a crack, and then gently pour your love into that crack." Bo Peep, thank you for doing just that for me and our family all these years. I am grateful, grateful and grateful again."

Contact Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or

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