Les “Coach” Fernandez R.I.P.

Foreword written on Saturday:
What a pathetic excuse for a writer I must be if words fail me at a time when it means the most. Instead of tears, I’m wading in a puddle of platitudes….”I’m so very sorry for your loss.” Clichés run amok in my brain – my heart is heavy (as lead), my heart goes out to you — out where? And why is loss such a palpable ache? I am constantly searching for the universality in a story, so why do I seize up when universality smacks me in the gut?
Perhaps because I am human.
Yes, but I am a writer. I refuse to be pathetic. Ass in chair, open a vein, write!

A good man died yesterday morning. Admittedly lots of good men died yesterday. Some died in the line of duty, while others simply reached the end of their line. Some died heroically, and others died horrifically. Some died before their time, others finally expended the borrowed time they had been given. The good man whose loss saddens me today was a friend to me for 40 years.


lesfernandezsml.jpgApril 30, 1991 was declared “Les Fernandez Day” in Westchester County. Now, sixteen years to the day, Les “Coach” Fernandez is laid to rest. He died Friday morning from congestive heart failure, one week after celebrating his 80th birthday with family and friends.

I spoke to him the night before the big party and I told him how very much I wanted to be there, as I had been for so many of the milestones though the years – The Cage 25th Anniversary, Les’ wedding (Coach’s oldest son and namesake), a 50th birthday party or two, even an occasional Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, Coach’s 70th birthday bash, the renewal of Coach & Nat’s wedding vows on their 50th anniversary….. and some scary times too, Coach’s car crash, Les’ heart surgery…. I won’t call it a premonition, but I somehow knew this party would be Coach’s last big event, but I could not go, not this time. He knew that I was there in spirit, just as I know that his spirit lives on in all of us whose lives he touched.

Coach held many jobs ranging from boxing coach to psychotherapist, but what he was, always, was a youth worker. From his undergrad days as a “street gang worker” for the Police Athletic League back in the late 1940s, until the day he retired in 1991 after 29 years with The Cage Teen Center (26 as its Executive Director), his focus and his gift was in helping young people to cope and excel.

He believed that school dropouts, drug abusers, runaways, youthful offenders, outcasts and young adults with family, social or even police problems do not have to be alienated from society’s mainstream forever. He recognized that these kids, who came from all walks of life — all races, socioeconomic strata, educational levels, from all parts of town – had one thing in common: their basic psychological needs, to love and be loved and to feel worthwhile to themselves and to others, had not been fulfilled. So one-on-one, one at a time, sometimes in a boxing ring or on a basketball court, sometimes folding his 6-foot-plus frame into a desk chair in a classroom on the top floor of the rectory of Grace Church, he touched the lives of many.

dropincenter1963.jpgWhen Coach first started working at the Cage Teen Center in 1962, it was little more than a deserted basement bowling alley used as a drop-in center. Teen strife caused problems and the adults in charge, not being professionals, were unable to control the situation. They hired Coach as a part time group worker, then, in 1965, they appointed him to the full time position of Executive Director.

boxing.jpgThe following year The Cage Teen Center youth made a film entitled “Tell It Like It Is” which not only gave them a voice, but helped the various community agencies to better understand their problems. That was also the year that Henry Jeter, 175 lbs., Light Heavyweight, became the first member of The Cage Teen Center Boxing Program to win a Golden Gloves Championship at the old Madison Square Garden.

In 1967, Coach used a $25,000 Federal Government grant to launch EduCage, an Alternative High School Program, that included academic subjects, arts, and job skills ranging from typing to automotive training. A year later he established the first in-school Infant Care Center in New York State, offering parenting skills to young mothers and fathers, and daycare services for Educage students with babies. Another new program to emerge that year was The Cage Drug Prevention Center, the first official drug treatment program in Westchester County. Whenever an obstacle arose to prevent a young person from achieving more, Coach sought and fought for solutions.

He was one of the most dedicated men I have ever known, seemingly tireless, always on the go. He served on city and county boards and committees too numerous to mention, lectured and consulted with organizations, schools and agencies interested in the problems of young people, and even testified before the House Sub-Committee on Crime. Throughout the years he maintained his State Certification as an Industrial Arts Teacher, Guidance Counselor, Secondary School Principal and School Administrator and Supervisor, but that was not enough; at a time when most would be planning to retire, he went back to school and earned his Doctorate Degree in Counseling and Human Development a Post Graduate Certificate in Psychotherapy.

ny-008.jpgSomehow, on top of all that he did for others, he and his wife Natalie, raised a family — Les, Richie, Don, and Lanette — four remarkable, strong, and loving people who shared their dad with so many other young people who who grew up and remembered Coach with love and appreciation. They wrote to him and his files are overflowing with notes like this one:

Educage was the only school I had ever been to where I felt I really belonged, and that the teachers and faculty really cared what happened to me… A lot of us kids lives would’ve gone down the drain if we didn’t get help, and I’ll always remember the dedicated people who were there when we needed them.

One of the many plaques and awards given to Coach bears this quotation from Henry B. Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” A thought echoed in the letters he treasured, like this one:

You started Educage, in which you have helped hundreds of people like me to get their high school diploma, and furthering their education. Your love and caring have rubbed off on most of us you touch. Because of the love and dedication you showed the youths in past and present, a lot of your ex youths are now in the field of youth counselors…

As a WWII vet, the funeral service will include the flag ceremony and taps. As a beloved leader of the community, the funeral cortege will be accompanied by the White Plains Police Force. Though it may sound hyperbolic, the fact is that over the years Coach touched thousands of lives. He will be honored by many and missed by all.

20 thoughts on “Les “Coach” Fernandez R.I.P.”

  1. Thanks for “opening a vein” and putting those words down. It was worth the effort; you have artfully shared something of the greatness of this man’s life and the significance of his life to others. *That* is a beautiful thing.

  2. This is a wonderful tribute, Devra. Thank you so much for sharing it. Words did not fail you at all! I’d love to hear more about him and how you knew him, if you ever want to write about it.

    Thanks again!

  3. Thank you for the beautiful words about my dad – and the “dad” of many. I only hope that I can be 1/10 as kind and caring to others as he has been. There is no doubt that God placed him on this earth to do exactly what he did – help others. He is always in my heart and thoughts whether his physical being is here or elsewhere.
    You’ve have been a wonderful friend to our entire family – a sister of sorts, and for that I am eternally grateful.


  4. Coach was an inovator in the concept of supplying alternative education with the use of non-profit funds. A seeer- a teacher, a real and substentative teacher, friend and healer who has left endless benefits for others.

  5. No Dictionary or Vocabulary can have the words to describe the spirit ” The Coach is”. His magnetic personality touches everyone who came in contact with this beautiful and affectionate soul. For many the Coach still lives in their hearts and his presence is Eternal . A humble homage to “The Coach” from one who could feel his spirit though for a brief contact. Thanks les for having given me an opportunity to talk to “HE COACH”. His memories will last Forever.

  6. I want to thank all of you for saying such kind words about my father. It makes me feel so very proud to have been named after him. Devra I want to say a special thanks for telling people a little bit about this great man. Devra has been a part of our family for about 40 years and my family and I think the world of her. Most people don’t know this but my father always wanted to learn how to write music but never had the time. When he retired he studied how to write music and the lessons he received happened to have been offered by a long ago Educage student. After some time my father wrote music and lyrics for about 8 country tunes. Not having an ear for country music I still was interested in hearing them and I must say there are about 4 great songs and one very special song. I was shocked when I heard what my father composed and will treasure these songs for the rest of my life. As always “Coach” did a first class job writing them. In closing I would like to share with you a little speech I presented to all who attended my father’s 80th birthday and as soon as my wife finds time she wil post her Eulogy which touched everyone.

    COACH’s 80th Birthday

    First I want to thank all of you for being here today to celebrate this very special day for this very special person.

    Dad today is not only a special day for you but also a special day for all of us. We are all here today to wish you, this special man, a Happy 80th birthday.

    What can I say about a man who has done so much for so many and never asked for anything in return.

    His devotion to our mother, his children and friends over all these years was never in question. Raising 4 kids, supporting his family and finding time to help others who needed him was not easy but he always found a way.

    A testament to how many people love you Dad is indicated by all of you who showed up today. Even his cardiologist found time to be here. How many of you know of a doctor, who has so little time to begin with, but found time to be here today. Dr. Zevon is that doctor and under his care has kept a watchful eye on my father’s health over the years. Dr. Zevon please stand, my family and the people here want to thank you for all you have done. I also want to say a special thanks for Herschel Jacobs, please stand, who many years ago saved my father from serious injury when the tractor my father was driving rolled on top of his leg pinning him under it. Herchel actually lifted up the back of the tractor which was filled with stones and freed my father. Till today none of us know how you were able to do that but are thankful you did.

    People from Cage and Educage, AT&T, Lincoln Farm, people from my bowling team and any others I have missed are here today as one large family to say thanks and express our love for you.

    For all the sacrifice you’ve made over all these years and for all the happiness you’ve brought to our family is also reflected in the smiles of everyone here today. You’ve been the cornerstone to not only our family but to so many others.

    There are no words large enough nor enough time for all of us to express our thanks and love that we all have for you. All we can say to you is we love you and wish you only the best in the future.

    Dad I Love you.

  7. The following condolence note was received by the the family, and it touched them so much that they got Steve’s permission for me to post it here:

    Dear Natalie,

    What can I say?

    I am so sorry for your loss.
    Our time has ended with our dear friend. He was a great person and a great leader.

    I loved him more than I ever realized. He guided so many lives to better places, I trust that God in heaven has guided Les to his own “better place.”

    I also know that at this very moment Coach (as we all knew him) is giving the Angels praise for their good work and at the same time he is probably suggesting how they might do their job a bit better. He was our “coach” and I know that God has now put him to work at his new job. And if I know Les he has already started setting up his office ready for the tasks ahead.

    I look back at the landscape of my life and I see all of the seeds that coach planted there.

    They are growing nicely and I will continue to nurture the garden that Les helped me plant. I will also share the glory and the pride with him as I believe he is watching me and I wouldn’t dare let him down.

    He was my coach and I loved and respected him very much. I feel it is my duty to pass on the knowledge and wisdom that he gave so generously to us all. We were blessed to even know him.

    May God bless you all and give you the strength to carry you through this most difficult time. I cry for our loss but I celebrate Coach’s promotion.

    The world and everyone he touched are better for having known him.

    With a heavy heart and lots of love…

    Most Sincerely
    Steve Luongo class of 1971.

  8. Having just learned of Les’ death (in late October of 2007), I am just so sorry that I was not able to see him again, in person, after all these years. That’s because the Les Fernandez I knew was not yet “Coach” but rather a newly-married, 27-year old counselor at a boys’ camp on Schroon Lake in the Adirondack Mountains in update New York. The year was probably 1953 when I was just 14 years old. But though some 54 years have passed since then, I have never forgotten that warm, infectious smile…and wonderful sense of humor!

    Then, in late August of 2006, I finally tracked him down through a former owner of the camp we both attended. And though, unfortunately, we never got together then, face-to-face, I did have an extended phone conversation with him–a conversation which brought back many fond, jointly experienced memories!

    In the eight years I attended summer-long camps in the Paradox-Schroon Lake area, no counselor I met during those formative years left a more lasting impression on me than Les Fernandez!

    Even though our lives interspersed for such a very brief period of time, I find myself now experiencing a terrible sense of loss! However, it is most gratifying reading the many comments written by those who knew him for so many years.

    It is abundantly clear that Les Fernandez left an indelible mark on many…including a 14-year old boy from Kearny, New Jersey who knew him for all of eight weeks in the summer of 1953.

    May he rest in peace.

  9. My deepest sympathy to all of Les “Coach” Fernandez’s family and friends.

    Being out of touch with the family for some time I was just now informed of his passing.(11/11/07) Even though it has been over ten years since I saw him last I can’t forget the impression he made on me.

    I didn’t have Les for a teacher or a coach but I could attest to every gratifying word said in his behalf.

    I admired Mr. Fernandez greatly, I say Mr. Fernandez because I am about the same age as his sons and daughter and would always give him the same respect as he gave me.

    We met years ago around Christmas 1979. Living in the same neighborhood we became friends. It wasn’t very long before I ended up at the dinner table. I can remember it like it was yesterday. We were involved in our first engaging conversation and I was amazed how comfortable I felt.

    He was also a man with a great sense of humor, as we sat and spoke not much time would go by before we broke out in laughter over one thing or another. Don’t get me wrong, as many of you know, this man was no push over. He was a big man, six foot boxing coach and admired for his educational achievements equally in the academic world as in the sports arena. I remained friends with Mr. Fernandez and family for many years, attending picnics and parties at the house and we always had fun kidding and joking around. What can I say, he was just the kind of guy you liked to be around.

    His sons and daughter moved out and they sold the house in the neighborhood. Thankfully they didn’t move far and I would sporadically run into Natalie and Les in a store or nearby restaurant. Immediately I received a bright smile and kind words from both Natalie and Les. They always had time to chat and our conversation never seemed to end without laughter and a handshake.

    I would like the family to know, (Mrs. Fernandez– Natalie), Les, Richie, Don, and Lanette. I am deeply sorry for your loss. Having touched so many hearts and minds. I know this loving person will be missed…

    My Condolences… Jim Diana

  10. Here it is, Jan. 30, 2008 and only now have I learned of the great Coach’s passing at 80. There is truly too much to say in this forum, but Coach was everything and more that has been written. I was trying to track down a fight in 1963 featuring Billy Bello, on the undercard a Cassius Clay fight at Madison Square Garden. Bello was one of Charlie Caserta’s top pro fighters at the time. Anyway, in scrolling through the Internet, searching for Bello, then Cage, I came upon the story about Coach. I’m a former sports writer, and also a member of the original Cage on the now-defunct William Street in White Plains. Charlie and Coach were quite a pair, along with Crazy Ray Paolillo, who himself only passed recently. Yes, Coach was compassionate, witty and warm and yes, no pushover. He had height and a good jab! A great smile, firm handshake, just a compelling figure. I can’t believe how the years have passed, and along with the years come the passing of wonderful people. Les was the Cage, and it must have been tough to keep up the funding. I remember Henry Jeter, of course, because he went all the way to the title (5 knockouts, if I remember) while I was eliminated early in the tournament. But I maintained a relationship with Charlie and Coach and always enjoyed his cards at Christmas. I’m terribly saddened I did not have the opportunity to be there with the family. Wasn’t one of the sons a White Plains police officer? What a wonderful tribute, by the way, on the celebration of Coach’s 80th birthday. I hope that Nat is doing well and, of course, his children and everyone in the Fernandez circle of family and friends. May Coach rest in eternal peace. My mom always used to recite a moving poem about two friends, about how the one would also say he was going to visit the other. The final stanza goes something this this: And a telegram came, Jim died today. So around the corner, what we get in the end is a vanished friend. I’m sorry I didn’t stay in closer contact with Coach, but I know he’d be the first one to tell me forget about it and keep punching, as he did when I lost in the Gloves and he told me to stay in school, don’t worry about boxing. Bless you Coach. Marc A. Maturo, Tappan, NY

  11. Sincere condolences and praise.
    As a former student, I can say that his best efforts were not wasted…

    Educage Graduate

  12. funny after rereading this part

    “He believed that school dropouts, drug abusers, runaways, youthful offenders, outcasts and young adults with family, social or even police problems do not have to be alienated from society’s mainstream forever.”

    I fell into every category, I was “all of the above”

  13. It has been 18 months, almost to the day, since we bid farewell to “COACH”. There is not a day I don’t think of him. As stated in my sisters eulogy he was no pushover and he alwyas had a positive impact on peoples lives whether they realized it or not. I am fortuante enough to have “THE COACH” as a dad abd I recall a plaque I presented to him at his retirement party. Here are just a few of the lines, which by the way were from a song I heard entitled “My Dad”;

    He isn’t much much in the eyes of the WORLD
    He’ll never make history
    No he isn’t much in the eyes of the world
    But he is THE WORLD to me My Dad

    That goes to show how lucky and fortunate a person I and my siblings are. There is no greater feeling than to sit back and listen t the accolades about your parent or loved one. I have been told I am alotlkie my dad HOWEVER i do believe the mold was broken when God created COACH.
    I do try, as my sister said earlier, to let the other driver in front of me even if I have the right of way, not to pass judgement on someone without having walked in his r her shoes. I know my dad is watching over all of us and I hope he is as proud of us as we are of him and all he represented in life. My oldest son D.J. (Don Jr.) is now going into his 3rd year of college and to my surprise (kidding) he is majoring in english and wants to be a teacher like his grandfather. So you see coach even though you are not here physically your lessons were well taught. I thank you for being the man, father, grandfather and friend that you were while here as you definitely made this place a beeter place to live BUT whats really special is how you have helped change the course of so many lives. One day we will meet again.

    I love you dad


  14. After my father, no man had made a more loving, more lasting, more positive effect on me than Coach. An inspiring leader, a supportive friend, and always a mensch (he knew more Yiddish than anyone I’ve ever met).

  15. Thank you for such a beautiful tribute to “Coach”. He was a truly remarkable man! So many of us have so much to thank him for. He was truly sent by God to rescue us, and the fruit we would later bare. I am thankful to his family for sharing him with us. What a tremendous sacrifice you made, so that he could rescue us. So when people ask me why I love teaching “At Risk” students, and why I pick them up in the morning and drop them of in the afternoon, take them places during vacations and prepare lavish meals for our class parties, I tell them about a place called “Cage” and a man named “Coach”.
    Pay It Forward!

  16. While trying to find the schedule for this years Golden Gloves I came upon this site. Although I never met Coach Fernandez I feel I now know him after reading all the wonderful tributes written about him. I’ve always considered myself very lucky to have a wonderful wife, children & now grandchildren & to have met many terriffic people through the years. After reading about Coach Fernandez I know I wasn’t as lucky as I thought because I never got to meet Coach Fernandez. To his family I say cheriss all the memories you have of this wonderful man. The world is a better place because he was here.

  17. I just came upon this and just started to cry. I did attend Educage and graduated with Honers. Coach always supported me. I am deeply sad of this wonderful man’s passing. I will always love and remember him.

    Terri Kasper Valera Class of 1980

  18. A Great Man passed and I remember him yearly even today. Coach helped me be the person I am today, better for knowing him.

  19. Coach hired me on Mamaroneck Ave. and I started the next day or so. I had a lot of irons in the fire as I always thought it was best to apply for a lot of jobs at the same time.
    He knew this and hired me on the spot.
    As a principal , he was supportive at every turn. He had a great impact on me and inspired me to try new things. When I approached him for to ask if I could teach a new course he said sure , Just give him a syllabus for the course.
    The teachers all knew they were in a special place at Educage. I taught there for 4 years and Les was supported during all of that time.
    I was shocked when he passed and when I went to his funeral I could not believe he was gone. He was the salt of the earth and I think of him often and will always love and respect.

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