Happy Fernandez was an activist, a politician and a college president.
She was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1939. Moved to the east coast in 1954 and settled in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s.
Fernandez thrived in higher education, achieving four degrees: a BA from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, an MA in Education from Harvard University, an MA in History from University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in Education from Temple University.
She taught in the School of Social Administration at Temple University for 18 years during which time she was also a fierce advocate for public schools and for the rights of parents to participate in decisions about their child’s education. In 1972, Fernandez founded the Parents Union for Public Schools with fellow parent, Helen Williams. PUPS drew its participation in part from the Powelton-Mantua Education Fund, a nonprofit that Fernandez participated in whose goal, among other things, was providing childcare to low and middle income families in the neighborhoods of Powelton and Mantua. PUPS mission was to help secure adequate funding for the Philadelphia public schools and to insist on a quality education for Philly school children. PUPS was committed to an integrated leadership team and, in its first year, drew more than 1000 parents into its membership. Many of these were disillusioned by the Home School Councils as they were seen as too homogeneous and too tied into the city’s political establishment.
Fernandez served as a City Councilwoman from 1992-99. In 1999, she and Queena Bass became the first women to run for the office of mayor of Philadelphia. In most accounts, Fernandez is given that accolade alone, as her candidacy was seen as more “serious” than that of Bass. Fernandez lost in the Democratic primary to John Street who would go on to win the mayoral election.
The voters of Philadelphia have never elected a woman as mayor and, to this day, the number of women who have run for the office is exceedingly small.
After her failed mayoral bid, Fernandez was selected as President of Moore College of Art and Design, the first and only women’s art school in the U.S. She served in this position from 1999-2012 overseeing major programmatic expansions and securing increased funding for student scholarships and fellowships. Her leadership was considered by many to be transformative for the college.
Fernandez died January 19, 2013. Hundreds of city leaders, activists, colleagues, educators and friends and family gathered to celebrate her life and to honor her contributions to the city.