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Happy Fernandez, city leader, activist, dead at 74

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

Happy Fernandez. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
Happy Fernandez. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)Read more

Happy Craven Fernandez, 74, former Philadelphia city councilwoman, community activist and college president, died Saturday 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 on Jan. 13. 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 emailed friends.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 for the top job of Philadelphia mayor in the nation's fifth-largest city. That was in 1999.

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

She was the only Democrat in the primary ever to run a successful citywide campaign for an at-large council seat. She did it in 1991 and 1995, and served two consecutive terms on council.

"She was a terrific city councilwoman. She was smart and had courage," said former Gov. Rendell, who served as Philadelphia's mayor during 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."

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."

Mayor Nutter said in a statement that he fondly recalled "from my earliest days in politics," spending time at the home of Dr. Fernandez and her husband, the Rev. Richard Fernandez, during meetings of Americans for Democratic Action.

"She cared passionately about the city and especially its children," Nutter said in the statement. "She was the person who years ago championed the need to replace the Youth Study Center with a modern facility. During her time in City Council, she was focused, policy driven and she kept her word. And when I ran for Mayor, she gave me tremendous support and encouragement and in more recent years she advised me. She always acted with grace, a smile and kindness. I will miss her greatly."

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

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

But in seven years on the City Council from 1992 to 1999, Dr. Fernandez drew criticism for the low profile she kept on Council, 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,"' 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.

"She thought internally a lot. She was a reserved person, perhaps shy at times, but when she decided to do something, it got done.." said Graham. "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 that 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 University.

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

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.

An avid tennis player, her first visit to Philadelphia in 1955 was to play in the National Junior Girls Championships.

Dr. Fernandez met her husband in 1961 and they made their home in University City for 40 years.

Surviving, in addition to her husband and three sons, John, David and Rich; and eight grandchildren.

Staff writer Maria Panaritis contributed to this article.