HOLYOKE — Up until his death, Rafael Fernandez of Fernandez Family Restaurant always lived his life with a big heart and love to share for his family, and his community in Holyoke.

“A week before my father passed, he wanted to make sure — on his deathbed he told me to literally let the community know how much he loved them and appreciated them and was always just so grateful to everything the community had done for us,” said Ada Fernandez-Rodriguez, the oldest of Fernandez’s three children.

Fernandez died last week at the age of 71 following a battle with esophageal cancer. An immigrant from Puerto Rico who moved here in 1971, Fernandez was known for his family restaurant, being a family man and supportive community member who led with kindness.

When first in America, he found a job working for American Pad & Paper, one of Holyoke’s many paper mills, and an apartment in the city’s Flats neighborhood. His wife, Ada, soon left Puerto Rico to join him.

In 1988, the family opened the Fernandez Family Restaurant on Suffolk Street. They moved to 111 High St. after their restaurant sustained water damage when the old Knights of Columbous building caught fire. Eventually, they relocated to 161 High St.

“My dad, first and foremost, his thought process was he loved God first, his family and then the community in that order. It was just so easy and came so natural for him because that’s the way that he was brought up by my grandparents,” Fernandez-Rodriguez said. “My dad would literally walk into a room and light it up, and I’m not exaggerating, I mean his smile was from ear to ear and people loved that about him.”

Fernandez-Rodriguez added her father’s mindset instilled in the whole family what it meant to be kind and a good community member. She said her father’s kindhearted attitude was felt across the community and led by example on being a kind person.

“He was always willing to help and always making sure that he passed those values down to us. He would always say, ‘Make sure that person has food,’ if they didn’t have money. ‘Don’t ever deny,’ he would say. ‘Don’t bother about charges, just give it to them,’ and he always wanted to find ways to help. And always, my dad never expected nothing in return. Honest, sincere and loyal. He just gave from his heart, and I think that’s one of the qualities I think that made people fall in love with him,” said Fernandez Rodriguez.

Fernandez Family Restaurant became a community spot as Fernandez-Rodriguez described the restaurant as a community meeting place for shared meals by many different members of the community. Fernandez would often join guests at their tables to talk and catch up on family, life and the Red Sox-Yankees Rivalry.

“It became a landmark and that was something we were so honored to have,” she added.

In her eyes, Fernandez-Rodriguez said her father just always wanted people to feel comfortable.

“He would ask them where they are from, who recommended it to them, and then he would ask them, ‘are you a baseball fan and which team do you root for, Boston Red Sox or Yankees,” Fernandez-Rodriguez said laughing. “He would come in and he would say, ‘You see that game last night where Boston whooped their butt?’ He wanted to make people feel so comfortable.”

After 34 years of food and philanthropy in the greater Holyoke area, the Fernandez Family Restaurant closed in July 2022 to a gathering of supportive residents and city leaders to celebrate the family’s run in the city. In November of that year, the city officially renamed the intersection of High and Hampden streets as Fernandez Way, to commemorate the contributions that Rafael and his family made to the city over more than three decades.

“He was so excited about that [Fernandez Way]. It was like he was a little kid because he kept on asking, ‘when is it going to happen?’ It was like a little kid asking for a toy,” Fernandez-Rodriguez said with a laugh. “It wasn’t just for him, but you realize it was for the whole family. He wanted to share it with the whole family and let the family know that was something we did together.”

Fernandez-Rodriguez added the outpouring of support from the community has been surreal. She shared one message she received after her father’s passing was from someone who also recently lost their father. This family friend told Fernandez-Rodriguez that Fernandez was the only person to visit her dying father in the hospital, something she will never forget.

“That one touched my heart. That’s him. That what best describes him. If you had nobody, he was going to be there for you. That’s what he installed in us, and that’s what we are going to install into our kids,” Fernandez-Rodriguez said. “He was a phenomenal father and husband and we’re going to greatly miss our dad. He’s always going to be in our lives, and he will never be forgotten, and that’s exactly what we told him when he was passing, nobody’s ever going to forget the Fernandez name.”

Messages of memories, thanks and appreciation for Fernandez’s life have overwhelmed the family and left them feeling the love and support of Holyoke.
Following Fernandez’s death, the family extended their appreciation to the community and made a final request for those wishing to recognize the passing of their family patriarch.

“Thank you for the immense love, prayers and support we have received during this difficult time,” the family said in a released statement. “In his honor, please do something kind for anyone that may be in need, as this is what he enjoyed to do the most.”

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