Celebrating an American
By Elizabeth Kraushar
Fernandez has spent a lifetime "giving back" to his adopted homeland. Currently President of the Maplewood Committee. for Servicemen and Women, Fernandez supports our township's servicemen and women -- wherever they're stationed around the world - by sending them "care packages" and the local paper to remind them of home. Fernandez is also a member of Maplewood's American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, both of which he served as Post Commander. He is a proud member of the Kiwanis Club and an active volunteer throughout the community. In the past three years, he has volunteered 1,400 hours as a wheelchair escort at St. Barnabas Hospital and he serves as an usher at Morrow Memorial Church in Maplewood.
Born in Vieques, Puerto Rico, Fernandez immigrated to America at age seventeen. Despite the Depression, "America became a place to find new opportunity," says Fernandez. Living in Manhattan, Fernandez pursued his love of dancing by working for dance studio pioneer Arthur Murray. Fernandez explains that he became "one of the best exhibition ballroom dancers in America."
Then at age 21, as World War II was raging in Europe, Fernandez found himself entertaining a crowd of 3,000 servicemen and women. As he looked out at the room full of uniforms, he felt that he should be among them. Fernandez enlisted in the Navy because, he jokes, "The Navy was the only branch of the service where a captain had to be wherever I was. I liked those odds better."
"I jumped from performing at the Pierre Motel to bunking with a bunch of Brooklyn kids," says Fernandez, describing the culture shock of joining the Navy. But Fernandez made friiends and adjusted well. He applied to the Navy's service school and became a Radioman First Class. He then volunteered for amphibious training and became a Yeoman First Class, assigned to a special craft called an LST that carried tanks, trucks and other heavy equipment and landed them on shore.
During his four years in the Navy Fernandez participated in several invasions: in Morocco; Gela and Salerno, Italy; the famous landing on Normandy Beach; Saipan; the Philippines; and Shanghai, China. Fernandez was hit with shrapnel in his lower right leg while manning a twenty-millimeter anti-aircraft machine gun. He adds with a laugh, "I didn't get the Purple Heart because my wound was from friendly fire." Though Fernandez saw the devastating effects of war, he describes his military service as "freedom's obligation." A soldier's patriotism, he explains, includes "self-sacrifice, giving up the liberty and ways of being that we take for granted at home in order to defend democracy."
Upon his discharge, Fernandez trained briefly as an actor in Hollywood but eventually he returned to his dance career, at Palm Springs Country Club in California and, later, at the Grossinger's resort in New York's Catskill Mountains, where he met his first wife, Veda, a dance teacher. He worked for Arthur Murray in Ohio and later for Murray's competitor Fred Astaire Dance Studios back in New York. Fernandez then opened his own dance studio in East Orange, New Jersey.
In the early 1970's, the bilingual education movement inspired a career change. At age 52, Fernandez earned first a B.A. in English and Spanish and then a master's degree in Bilingual Education. For the next 23 years, he taught bilingual education at Dover High School in Dover, New Jersey, and served as a role model for active patriotism. He believes that patriotism must be taught to young people by parents, as well as teachers. Fernandez says, "Our kids are our future. Whatever they believe in will shape our country's future. I believe in the old patriots, our Founding Fathers. They created this country They made the rules. Learning about our country's history and learning about our country's principles and rules is an important part of patriotism."
Fernandez has noted changes in the expression of patriotism throughout the years. He recalls that patriotism ebbed during the 1960s and '70s, but it has again swelled in America, "What 9/11 reminded people of is how fragile our lives are and how some of rur enemies hate America for what freedom has brought us." Fernandez's strong convictions are a result of his high regard for basic principles of patriotism. "In this country, patriotism comes back when we readjust and return to our basic values-the values that helped form America. Respect for the law. Respect for the flag. Respect for God."
Maplewood resident Elizabeth Kraushar is a junior at the Academy of Saint Elizabeth. Her writing has won state and regional awards.