by Yoly Tumangan Tubalinal.
December 25, 2010
You can also say, Joseph “Joe” Fernandez’s career, as was his life, was nipped in the bud. A rising star of the Filipino American community of Rhode Island and in the prime of his life, Joe would have achieved much more politically, had he been given a few more years in public service. But on Saturday, December 18, Joe died shortly after contracting a deadly disease called “Dermatomyositis,” a rare inflammatory disease marked by muscle weakness and a distinctive skin rash. He left behind his wife, Emily and twin daughters, Coco and Phoebe.
It feels odd that someone like me who didn’t know him personally and in fact, just first heard of his name from a good friend during the last US presidential elections, would write like I actually knew him. The truth is, I got to know him only in his death but wished I had the chance to meet him in person. It would have been my great honor.
One had to read his mother’s email about the aftermath of his passing to realize his impact in his community. She wrote how President Obama, Joe and his wife Emily’s classmate in Harvard, called to express his sympathy for Joe’s death. He even asked to talk to the twins. The mayor of Providence had the flags flown at half staff on Monday, December 20. The Brown University flag will be draped over his coffin.
He was only the second person accorded such honor, the first one being Sidney Frank, who bequeathed to Brown University one hundred million dollars upon his death. They will also host a reception after his funeral on Thursday, December 23.
“My son must have endeared himself to one hundred million alumni and current students during his term as President of Brown University Alumni Association and Brown University Board,” wrote Joe’s mother, Connie Fernandez. The outpouring of sympathy and support from all over the place just opened her eyes to the richness of his son’s life and the countless other lives he had touched.
FAMILY, EDUCATION, WORK
Joe Fernandez was the eldest of four children of Dr. and Mrs. Oscar Fernandez. Joe, who grew up in Pennsylvania, went to Brown University, where he met Emily Maranjian, who would be his wife. After Brown University, both went to Harvard Law School where they became classmates with Barack Obama. Joe graduated in 1991 and in 2008 co-chaired Obama’s presidential campaign in Rhode Island.
A Democrat, Joe Fernandez worked in New York City and Providence as a business lawyer and litigator before being appointed city solicitor in 2003 by Mayor David Cicilline. In September 2009, Joe resigned his position to run for Rhode Island’s Attorney General, which he unfortunately lost.
He had campaigned against corruption by providing transparency in the way the state does business, thereby eliminating a climate that encourages a “pay to play” way of getting government contracts. He said a “more ethical government will lead to more job creation.” He also wanted “to make Rhode Island a safer place to live.” Joe wanted to make tougher rules for lobbyists registration and reporting and seek the enactment of legislation to make licensing and permitting process more open.
Joe was active in the Filipino community as he was in the mainstream society. He was president of Harvard’s Asian American Law Students Association and was head of the Rhode Island Bar Association’s Committee on Involvement of Minorities.
He was president of the Brown University Alumni Association and an alumnus trustee of the Brown Corporation. He was also a former trustee of Trinity Repertory Company and a director of the Community College of Rhode Island Foundation.
The stream of glowing testimonials given to Joe by people from high and important places just kept coming as news of his sudden demise reached them.
His Harvard Law School classmate and friend, Pres. Barack Obama, expressed his shock and sadness over Joe’s death. In a statement released by the White House on Sunday, Obama calls Fernandez a “dedicated public servant” who “lived the American dream.”
Brown University President, Ruth J. Simmons said, “We are grateful for Joe’s many contributions to Brown, Providence and Rhode Island. His selfless service and uplifting spirit inspired us all.”
Todd Andrews, Brown University’s Vice President of Alumni Relations praised Joe as a “gracious, compassionate, open-minded and upbeat person.”
David Cicilline, outgoing mayor of Providence who offered Joe the job of city solicitor, called Fernandez “an outstanding lawyer with a sharp legal mind.”
Cicilline said in a statement, “Guided by a strong moral compass and deep commitment to public service, Joe led by example and earned the great respect of his colleagues and peers as a strong leader.”
Cicilline’s successor, Mayor-elect Angel Taveras, made a posting in his Facebook, calling Joe Fernandez’s death “a very sad day for all of Rhode Island.” Taveras wrote further, “Joe Fernandez was a great talent and incredibly generous human being who has been taken away from us too soon.’ ‘In our ten years of friendship, I saw firsthand his thoughtful leadership and compassionate intelligence in action.”
Former NaFFAA Executive Director and resident of Providence, Doy Heredia wrote, “Joe is well-known to the Fil-Am community as a compassionate lawyer, who with all his successes as City Solicitor of Providence, as well as prominence as a candidate for RI Attorney General, never turned his back on the needs of the Fil-Am community. He did many pro-bono work or referrals for cases involving Fil-Ams.
He is the first one I turn to for legal advice, such as lately in the case of an OCW (overseas contract worker) who was abused by her employer. He was our NaFFAA youth leader for the Eastern Region for a long time. He was our model young Filipino in Rhode Island. The Filipino American community and the people of Rhode Island will miss him.”
From Socrates Z. Inonog, former resident of Rhode Island for more than 30 years, his Facebook entry went, “Humanity lost a great, great gift of God. He will be missed sadly, but we are are comforted by the thought that our Lord has asked him to come back to his eternal home for reasons known only to God. Amen.”
Loida Nicolas Lewis, with whom JF worked on the Noynoy-Mar US campaign, emailed, “I am shocked, shocked, just as all of you in Providence. We all supported his run for Attorney General of Rhode Island! My deepest sympathies to his young widow Emily. And his twin daughters who must be devastated in their young soul. Lord, have mercy. Provide Strength and Wisdom to his widow and comfort to his daughters, we ask this in Jesus name. Amen.”
There are no easy answers to our question as to why someone so young and goodhearted, with a very promising future had to be taken from his family and the society that could use more people like him.
For now, faith in our Lord’s wisdom and prayers for the eternal repose of Joe’s soul and the comfort of his grieving family, his wife Emily, daughters Coco and Phoebe, mother Connie and siblings David, Susan and Thomas will suffice.
Note: Great many thanks to Dr. Tom D. Bonzon of Richmond, VA for providing this writer with information necessary to complete this obituary.