Helen Maria Fernandez, 1925 - 2020
Helen Fernandez, my longtime friend and fellow Sonoman, died last week. She was 95. In June of 2017 at the age of 92, she asked me to help her write her obituary in advance. Helen was, when we spoke, one of the last surviving Sonomans of America’s greatest generation. I didn’t need to research the highlights of her life, I lived through many of them and she filled in the blanks.
Reflecting back on her 60 years as a member of our community, she started our conversation by saying, “I love living here in Sonoma Valley. There are so many opportunities to do good things for our community. And when you do, you meet and become friends with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. It’s such a wonderful place.”
Born Helen Maria Blomberg, March 23, 1925, in San Francisco, she spent her entire childhood in the city. She graduated from Commerce High School on Van Ness Street just a few months after the outbreak of World War II. During the war, while working for Standard Oil, she joined United Service Organizations (USO) as a volunteer and organized a group of women to raise money and support the troops.
Even as a teenager, more than a decade before she came to Sonoma Valley, Helen saw opportunities to serve and had developed a talent for enlisting others to participate.
It was also during that era that she met Barney Fernandez, whose family lived in her neighborhood. Barney was a year ahead of her in school and went to work for American President Lines (a merchant marine company) after his graduation from Polytechnic High School in San Francisco.
They courted during the war years. Barney also served in the United States Naval Reserve. Helen said she told him that they couldn’t get married until he returned to school to earn his navigator’s license (officer’s commission). He did and they got married in 1947.
Barney returned to American President Lines as an officer, continuing his 44-year career with APL.
Their son Barney, Jr., was born in 1947, followed five years later by another son, Bill.
With the war’s end, Helen continued to find ways to serve, this time as a volunteer for the San Francisco Boys Club. It wasn’t long before she was on the club’s board of directors and eventually became board president.
By 1957, Helen, a seasoned volunteer, agreed to open the San Francisco Boys Club’s first summer camp in Sonoma Valley on property owned by Judge William P. Downey, at Cragmont just off Mountain Avenue in Agua Caliente.
She and her mother, Ester, moved onto the property and ran the camp all summer.
Helen fell in love with Sonoma Valley and never left. She and Barney, a career officer with APL, and sons Barney Jr. and Bill, purchased a home on Second Street West, and became permanent residents.
The same year, Helen opened the Sweet Tooth cafe on West Napa Street directly across from the Sonoma Index-Tribune. It evolved from a candy store to a coffee and lunch shop.
Simultaneously, Helen became involved with the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce. Her ability to identify worthy community causes and then recruit others to join her quickly transformed Helen’s Sweet Tooth into what many called “little city hall.”
It seemed that she knew everyone in town and everything that was going on in it. The I-T news editor, Jerry Parker, used to joke that when it was a slow news day, he’d walk across the street and ask Helen what was going on.
In the spring of 1962, even as Helen was intensely involved with the Chamber of Commerce, she became one of the founders of Sonoma Valley’s Boys Club. She, along with Dr. C.B. Andrews, Jerry Casson, Henri Maysonnave, George Marlowe, Judge A.R. Grinstead and a dozen other local residents, agreed to form a board of directors for what was to be called the Valley of the Moon Boys Club. Its first home would be the Sonoma Community Center.
From that day forward, Helen remained a major volunteer, supporter and leader of the club, which evolved into today’s Sonoma Valley Boys and Girls Club. She also stayed involved with the Chamber, eventually serving 12 years as its executive director. She was also a founder of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau.
She was active in the local Soroptimist club, serving a term as president, was Sonoma Valley’s representative on United Way, contributed her leadership to the City of Sonoma disaster preparedness task force and raised money for the Veterans Improvement Project.
Helen was instrumental in raising the money necessary to move the growing Boys Club from the Community Center to larger quarters at the former Hy-Lond Laundry on First Street West. While serving on the board, Helen established the first Sweetheart Auction and dinner, which has been the club’s signature fundraising event ever since. She also came up with the idea of naming a community member as the club’s “sweetheart” each year.