Les “Coach” Fernandez

Posted April 29, 2007

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.
No.
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.

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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.
class.jpgceramics.jpgautomotivetraining.jpginfantcare.jpg

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.

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Posted May 8, 2007

I am thrilled to see comments about my tribute to Les Fernandez! In addition to a very touching note from Coach’s daughter, Lanette, I am also gratified to see responses from people who were pleased to read about such a man even though they did not know him. Several people have asked me to write more about him and to tell of how I came to know him. This is a request that I will honor, but not today. At one time Coach and I spoke about writing a book and I deeply regret that the time was never right for such an undertaking. I need to spend some time with my memories before I write more.

Meanwhile, however, Lanette wrote a very wonderful eulogy, and I told her via private email that it was not only moving but also beautifully crafted. I asked her if I could post it here for you to see and she said “yes.”

A Tribute to Dad
by Lanette Fernandez

We are gathering today not only to comfort each other during this difficult time, but to celebrate the life of a beautiful man and to ask God to invite him into his world.

The term “gentle giant” comes to mind when i speak of my dad, Coach. 6’ tall, and a shoe size to match, he made his mark in life quietly and unpretentiously yet, his strength and love for life and people roared like a jet breaking the sound barrier. He had the ability to speak to anyone, from all walks of life – rich or poor, educated or not, troubled or fortunate – and make them feel like he understood – like what they had to say or what they were feeling was the most important thing to him. He spent his life reaching out to anyone that needed a hand or a sounding board.

I so readily recall hearing young and old speak of my dad’s kindness throughout my entire childhood. I remember often sharing dinner or our home with a youth that was going through difficult times. Coach would meet some troubled youth, and after he removed whatever weapons they may be carrying, say, “ok now – how about you come home with me and we’ll talk over dinner?!!” Sometimes I was frightened by the people he brought home, and now when I think about it as an adult, rightfully so, but God watched over Coach and guided him to make the right decisions.

As kind as Coach was, he wasn’t a push over. He always set the bar high. He encouraged those in his presence to attain a higher standard and gave them the tools to experience success. So many people I have met throughout my life have spoken the words, “your dad saved me from a life of …” whatever their demise may have been.

The eternal optimist, he could find a “reason” to explain the most horrific behavior (except poor grades from his children – there was no reason for that!!). Coach always reserved judgement and repeatedly preached, and lived, a life of understanding, acceptance of differences, kindness and honesty. He had a magical way with people that was almost supernatural – unexplainable, as though God blessed him and only him with this uncanny sixth sense.

Fortunately for him, he married my mom who went along with his crazy ideas of saving everyone!! She would keep him grounded in reality when his desire to “fix” someone’s problem was just not reasonable or too dangerous. Her strength allowed him the freedom to fulfill his calling of helping others.

So as we say goodbye to Coach and thank god for blessing us with having known him, the best “thank you” we can give to Coach for enriching our lives is to continue his mission of understanding and kindness. Let’s make a conscious effort to reserve judgement, practice acts of kindness and patience. Hold the door for the next person; let that car into traffic even if you have the right of way. Offer someone in need a few moments of your time – even if you don’t know what to say or how to help. When there is a reasonable choice, act unselfishly. This is what Coach devoted his life to and there is no better tribute to a “teacher” than to let him know –

“I heard you, I watched you and I have learned from you”