While researching, teaching, parenting, writing, playing the piano and even building cradles out of cherry wood for his grandchildren, Jack Fernandez approached every task with the same deliberation.
“He viewed the world through the eyes of a scientist,” said his son, Rudy Fernandez.
In a 2007 column for the Tampa Tribune, Fernandez offered a chemist’s tips for the kitchen, including never to heat water in the microwave (it causes superheating that leads to spills) and that the proper oil-to-vinegar combination is 3-to-1.
Fernandez, a Tampa native and charter chemistry professor at the University of South Florida, spent his life asking questions, figuring out how things worked and helping other people do the same. He died July 31 at 92 of old age.
Fernandez grew up in Tampa. His father worked as a shoemaker, and his grandfather worked in a cigar factory. One year in elementary school, he attended three different schools as his parents moved around for work. After he was kicked out of the second school, his new teacher called his parents in for a meeting.
“This boy is very smart,” she told them, “but he is very disruptive in class.”
When his dad told that story, he’d add, “I never knew I was smart until the teacher told my parents that.”
At 12, Fernandez got a chemistry set that he played with constantly.
Several years later, he discovered another lifetime love — Sylvia. While hanging out with friends in his neighborhood, he met a young woman who was a pianist at the Ybor City Rotary Club. The two married in 1951. Then, the kid who struggled in elementary school earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in organic chemistry from the University of Florida by the age of 24. He served in the Army, conducted research at Duke University in North Carolina and worked at Eastman Kodak in Tennessee. The couple had three sons, Jack, Albert and Rudy.
In 1960, when the University of South Florida opened, the Fernandez family came home.
The chemistry professor had serious things to teach, and he had a lot of fun teaching them.
When Graham Solomons joined the faculty, he looked more like a student, said James Leahy, now the chairperson of USF’s chemistry department, back then a student.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“On the first day of classes, Jack would get up and start lecturing on organic chemistry.”
From his seat among the students, Solomons would offer corrections.
“After three or four of these, Jack would say, ‘If you think you know this so well, why don’t you come up and teach the class?’ And Graham would say, ‘OK I will.’”
The students would all watch, their mouths agape.
Fernandez knew how and when to inject humor into what can be a difficult subject to learn, Leahy said. It’s an approach he’s adopted in his own teaching, and one that worked.
Fernandez’s students in polymer chemistry went on to careers in research, and for the students he taught organic synthesis, Leahy said, “Many of us who were in his class went on to jobs in the pharmaceutical industry.”
During his career at USF, Fernandez, who remembered what it meant to have his curiosity awakened as a struggling student, received multiple teaching awards.
He retired in 1995 and followed his curiosity into new places.
Café con leche
While working to choose people who’d be remembered with busts on Tampa’s Riverwalk, Fernandez made the case for Norma Tina Russo.
“I’d never heard of her,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, with the Tampa History Center.
Both men grew up in Tampa in dramatically different eras. They had 43 years between them, met most Fridays with a few others for coffee and worked together through Friends of the Riverwalk. Fernandez advocated for Russo, an Italian opera singer who taught music and produced operas through Ybor City’s Italian Club.
“He learned piano from her,” Kite-Powell said. “It’s that lived experience that can really help us understand what it was like to live in a certain place.”
And for Fernandez, that certain place was Tampa. After authoring several textbooks, he took his writing skills, his own experiences and the stories he’d collected and started writing columns for La Gaceta and the Tampa Tribune. He also wrote short stories and three novels. Fernandez didn’t want his books to be about politicians or business owners, said Rudy Fernandez.
“He wanted the novels to be about the regular people in Tampa.”
His books include “Café Con Leche,” which is 443 pages.
“Fernandez uses the black-and-white drink to describe two couples of Cuban descent who struggle with racial tensions against a backdrop of history-making events locally and internationally,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 2005. “... Fernandez has produced ‘a good read,’ which was his major objective.”
The smallest things
Fernandez taught, in the classroom and the cafe, by asking questions.
Since he died, the Fernandez family has received letters and emails from former students that all tell the same story.
“I spent many hours talking to your father, asking him questions about life that no one had ever discussed with me before,” wrote Eric Gratacos, a distant cousin who lives in Barcelona and spent a summer with the Fernandez family in Tampa. “Jack managed to awaken in oneself a curiosity for the smallest things.”
A memorial service for Jack Fernandez will take place at 11 a.m. Friday at Hyde Park United Methodist Church.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
Sign up for Kristen Hare’s newsletter and learn the stories behind our obituaries
Our weekly newsletter, How They Lived, is a place to remember the friends, neighbors and Tampa Bay community members we’ve lost. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up. Know of someone we should feature? Please email Kristen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •