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Dr. Les “Coach” Fernandez
Les “Coach” Fernandez inspired LatinBusinessToday, and many others before us.
Dr. Leslie Fernandez (“Coach”) amassed an incredible legacy and our mission to Inform, Inspire, Mentor & Empower. This is his story:
Coach Fernandez circa 1982
“Don’t shoot! That’s Coach’s son!”
That shout-out saved Richard Fernandez from injury, possibly even death. In the sometimes violent world inhabited by some Westchester, New York toughs, no one messed with “Coach” Leslie Fernandez – or with his police-officer son.
The reason wasn’t fear. No one feared the Coach. It was something considerably more powerful: love. If those young toughs ever loved any man, that man was Coach Fernandez.
LatinBusinessToday.com is dedicated to the memory of “Coach” Leslie Fernandez, a beloved educator remembered by many as the person who most influenced, and in some cases, transformed, their lives. Even for those who remained resistant and tough, and more outside the law than within it, Coach Fernandez’s deeply felt caring remained a meaningful experience.
While Leslie Fernandez had the prestige and position of being a teacher and head of their alternative high school, some of his former students might have been surprised to know the back story. It explains Coach’s powerful combination of deep, compassionate understanding and strength.
Born in 1927 in New York City, “Coach” Leslie Fernandez enjoyed an important gift in his life, and endured a significant cross.
The gift, an enduring one, was Fernandez’s parents’ unconditional love. No matter what he did or didn’t do, Coach always knew that Chelsie and Leslie Fernandez Sr. loved him.
But the cross, a harsh one at the time, likewise had an enduring impact. Fernandez was assessed as so academically inadequate, and particularly lacking in any language talent, that the only way he was able to get a high school diploma was by switching to a vocational high school. Fernandez’s self assessment about that period in his life is blunt: “I was a loser.”
Once free of school, Fernandez enlisted in the Army, which sent him to West Germany. The youth assessed as totally lacking in language-learning capabilities learned to speak German within a year. His follow-up assignment was as a command staff German language translator.
Below: EduCage staff, circa 1981, Coach in bottom lower left.
Despite this unexpected triumph, after his discharge Fernandez didn’t see himself in any better light. He hired on as a file clerk. During that post-enlistment period, Coach had a chance meeting that changed his life.
Fernandez hadn’t known it, but his high school coach had seen something in him. So when the two accidentally met on the street one day, the young file clerk was surprised when he asked him, “Why aren’t you in college?”
Fernandez answered truthfully: He didn’t think he could make it.
Understanding him better than he understood himself, Fernandez’s former coach promptly walked him straight to the nearby admissions office of New York University. The G.I. Bill opened the door to college, something he had never considered.
After college, the young man entered the New York City Public School system as an industrial arts teacher and later, guidance counselor. It was at his first school that he met Natalie; they were married within a year.
As his family grew to include four children, Fernandez needed additional income. Looking around, he learned about a local canteen and drop-in center for teenagers.
The center wasn’t much, that’s for sure.
A local entrepreneur paid the rent for an old bowling alley space. It was windowless, lit with fluorescent lights and sported a single amenity: a plywood slab held up by milk cartons that served as a ping-pong table.
Originally dubbed The Sugar Bowl, the teenagers, whose rowdy, frequent fights often drew the police, renamed their space The Cage. The name stuck.
The youths definitely needed supervision. Community involvement provided the funds for someone to work at The Cage six nights a week. It turned out to be Fernandez.
The teenagers were a challenge to Fernandez, who was then 34. Many were economically disadvantaged. But family pathology is an equal opportunity affliction. Destabilizing problems endured by many of Cage’s teenagers ranged from broken homes, alcoholism or drug addiction of one or both parents, to abuse and simple, garden-variety neglect.
Below: Upper left, Leslie Fernandez “Coach” as Director of Lincoln Farm summer camp with campers and counselor Tom Chapin, lower right on guitar, circa summer 1969
Many of the kids were described as hard-to-reach, alienated and hostile. Even Fernandez’s reflection about his first months working at Cage supported the description. His rueful remark: he wasn’t an animal tamer, after all.
Not an animal tamer, but definitely a fighter. Fernandez had been a Golden Gloves boxer. The first Cage program he launched, which endured for decades, was in boxing. It was a smart choice, channeling the energies of many hostile youths.
From that small beginning, and feeling his way all the way for the next three decades, Leslie Fernandez created EduCage, the first true alternative high school in New York’s Westchester County. It gave at-risk teenagers a meaningful chance to succeed in life. Significantly, the school that “Coach” Fernandez created also enjoyed one of the highest graduation rates in New York’s Westchester County.
What made the EduCage difference?
Leslie Fernandez always remembered his parents’ unconditional love and his former coach’s confidence in his abilities. Both made a positive difference in his life. He also remembered the cross of that “loser” feeling in high school when not a single teacher looked deeper. Those experiences informed his work in creating EduCage.
But there is more. There was Leslie “Coach” Fernandez himself.
As described by everyone who knew him, Leslie Fernandez, a man’s man, was also a mixture of compassion, empathy and strength. “Coach led me down a road of love and discipline,” says musician and music producer Steve Luongo. “Today when I work with other musicians, I try always to apply the lessons I learned from Coach to make them, and me, better.”
Indeed, the one feeling mentioned again and again by former students, especially the self-described troubled ones, is that they felt seen and understood by Coach. For many, it was their first experience of real caring from an adult.
At the same time, former students remember that rules, discipline and expectations were part of the mix. “You knew that he loved you unconditionally,” one former student recalls. “He also had unconditional respect for each one of us, which helped us to play by the rules.”
Coach, wife Natalie and son Richie at Coach’s 80th birthday party, April 2007. Coach passed away four days later.
Coach engendered another feeling that helped students to play by the rules. They felt he was there for them. And so was every teacher he hand-picked to teach at EduCage.
Individually and together, Coach and his teachers focused on helping students uncover their passions and interests. This led to unexpected career choices, from fashion and graphic design to the mechanical and performing arts to nursing, education and law.
For EduCage students, teachers’ interest and concern for them was a given. One recalls a teacher spending hours on the phone helping him apply to college. Another, who became a senatorial legislative aide before applying to law school, traces his interest in “bigger” things to the particular influence of one of the special EduCage teachers.
Not every student’s life turned into a success story. But as one observer commented: it’s remarkable that so many did.
And to the extent that they did, it is thanks to that remarkable man, Leslie “Coach” Fernandez, who is remembered by one former student as a man who “never gave up on anyone.”
Awards and Recognitions
Mr. Fernandez received many awards in his lifetime. Some of them include:
- Distinguished Service Award
- Brotherhood Award
- Marjorie Margolis Award
- First Citizen of Westchester Award
- Who’s Who in Education
Formal recognition of his work included:
- Proclamation by the County Executive of Westchester County: April 30, 1991 Les Fernandez Recognition
- Appointment by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo as Advisor to the committee for Alternative Education programs
Read Devra Hall Levy’s Final Farewell to Coach here