Jose Luis Fernandez, 64, of Medford Lakes, a former Rutgers University-Camden law professor and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection official whose passion for social justice and equality helped people get fair access to housing, state parks, and open waters, died Saturday, May 15, during a diving expedition in Newport, R.I.

Mr. Fernandez was always looking to learn things - a "seeker," his family called him.

He went from being a strawberry picker to an Army sergeant to a lawyer and became a diver, an artist, and a teacher in between. Most things he did in life came back to his love of the outdoors.

Born in Havana, Mr. Fernandez arrived in the United States via Miami when he was 16. He worked picking tomatoes and strawberries for a few months, then moved to North Philadelphia.

He graduated in 1965 from Olney High School, where he had excelled as a gymnast. After high school, he worked as a mechanic but didn't make enough money for college, so he joined the Army.

From 1966 to 1971, Mr. Fernandez taught artillery at Fort Sill, Okla.

Once he returned from the Army, he moved to Magnolia and started working as a paralegal at Camden Regional Legal Services. There, he was inspired to become a lawyer.

While taking courses from Thomas Edison State College and continuing to work at Camden legal services, Mr. Fernandez compiled a pamphlet on tenant-landlord law for tenants facing eviction.

After getting his bachelor's degree in 1982, Mr. Fernandez excelled at the Rutgers School of Law in Camden, professor Jay Feinman said.

There he cofounded Alianza, a Latino student association, which is still going strong, classmate Angela Baker said.

After law school graduation in 1985, Mr. Fernandez worked as a lawyer for the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate.

By 1988, he wanted to enjoy the summers and teach his children how to build kites and go camping, his son Nick said. So Mr. Fernandez took a job at his former law school, where he was a hit with the students, said Baker, the associate dean for student affairs.

"He bought bright socks and would wear them as a way to keep his students awake until 10 p.m.," Baker said. Mr. Fernandez sometimes taught night classes.

Mr. Fernandez was a mentor and inspiration to many Latino students, she said.

After retiring as a full-time professor in 1994, Mr. Fernandez went to work in the New Jersey Attorney General's Office, working mostly on environmental enforcement cases, said Bradley M. Campbell, former DEP commissioner.

Mr. Fernandez's leadership and commitment to the environment made him a prime candidate to help lead the DEP, said Campbell, who recruited him in 2000.

"Typically lawyers don't make good program leaders, but Jose was the exception," Campbell said.

Mr. Fernandez joined the DEP as director of the Fish and Wildlife Division. One of his biggest accomplishments was helping the red knot, an endangered migratory bird that passes through Cape May every year.

As director of the Parks and Forestry Division, Mr. Fernandez audited management practices, most of which were inadequate, and changed the system, Campbell said.

He also secured stable government funding for the state park system and strengthened community relations. Two parks being developed in Trenton and Paterson can be attributed to his vision, Campbell said.

Mr. Fernandez retired from the DEP in 2009 as manager of tideland management.

An island boy at heart, he loved fishing and everything else that had to do with water. He built his first kayak by hand and crafted his own fishing flies, which his family called "beautiful works of art."

In addition to his son Nick, Mr. Fernandez is survived by his wife of 20 years, Lisa Gottlieb-Fernandez, another son, Jason; a daughter, Emily; two brothers; a sister; and his first wife, Elizabeth.

A memorial service was held Friday, May 21, at Island State Beach State Park in Seaside Park, N.J.

Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com.