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The Muni Man Who’s Seen It All

Jerry Fernandez was to celebrate his 60th year in public finance on Saturday — all that time as counsel at the same law firm, Hawkins, Delafield & Wood LLP in New York City.

Hawkins, the largest public-finance firm in the country, opened its doors in 1854. For more than a third of its existence, Fernandez has played a key role establishing the firm’s reputation. He built up its housing practice and worked on New York City’s financial crisis in the 1970s. He expanded the firm’s practice to Maine, and developed business opportunities into multi-decade relationships.

At 86, Fernandez continues to commute from his Long Island home to One Chase Manhattan Plaza three or four days a week, with no retirement plans in sight.

“It gets in your blood,” he said with a laugh. “There’s only one way to retire and that’s to keep working. I’ll keep working as long as they’ll have me, and as long as I don’t make any serious mistakes.”

Fernandez grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and participated in the occupation of Japan. He joined Hawkins in 1950, when there were five or six lawyers at the Wall Street office and six competing firms around New York.

Fernandez said he “didn’t know a soul at the firm,” knew little about municipal bonds, and admits he was no scholar. It was his persistence that landed him the job.

Arnold Frye, the partner who hired Fernandez in 1950, was at the time negotiating with 52 ­insurance companies in working on the first bond issue for the New Jersey Turnpike. Fernandez recalls it took more than two months of pestering Frye before he got the job.

“He was really busy, so he kept losing my resume,” Fernandez said. “So I’d come back, we’d talk and have lunch, and then he would lose my resume again. Finally, in December, he found it.”

On Dec. 8, a Friday, Frye asked the young Jerry if he could start Monday. “Oh yes, sir,” Fernandez replied. “I could start tomorrow morning if you want.”

Beginning as an associate attorney, Fernandez worked on hundreds of projects around the country. He made partner in 1960, a role he kept for some 34 years.

In the course of his storied career, he has acted as bond counsel to the states of Washington, Alaska, and the government of the Virgin Islands. He has been underwriter’s counsel in revenue bond deals for toll roads, bridges, housing projects, and universities. He has represented banks and trust companies, authored scholarly articles, and presented speeches on big topics — like the eradication of clippable interest coupons on bearer bonds in the early 1980s.

“He’s one of the deans of the business,” said John Rumely, regional marketing manager at Nixon Peabody. “He’s seen more of the changes in this market than anyone else I can think of.”

Fernandez’s best-known legal work was helping to craft the intricate relationship between New York State and New York City to create the Battery Park City Authority in the late 1960s. He also drafted legislation in 1972 to establish the New York City Housing Development Corp.

The busiest time of his career was in 1975, when the Big Apple was fighting to remain solvent.

New York Gov. Hugh Carey, a former classmate of Jerry’s at St. John University’s School of Law, was charged with saving the city from a default and bankruptcy.

When the Municipal Assistance Corp., or Big MAC, was created to issue bonds for the city after investors stopped ­buying its debt, Hawkins was selected bond counsel.

“The first issue was supposed to be $750 million, in $5,000 pieces, coupon bonds,” Fernandez recalled. He was at home on a Sunday morning when a call came in saying they had doubled the size of the deal, making it one of the largest issues at the time.

Fernandez had to call the bank note company to get them working around the clock to get the paper securities out.

“They could only print so many bonds at a time,” he said. “They worked day and night to get it done. We had to use private planes so we wouldn’t have to wait for the commercial airlines.”

Colleagues Dick Sigal and Don Robinson “spent eons of time” drafting the language for the bond issue, making certain to avoid mistakes because they worked on a typewriter. Fernandez said Sigal “once worked 57 hours without sleep.”

On Oct. 15, 1975, New York’s United Federation of Teachers reneged on its agreement to purchase $225 million of MAC bonds, which threatened to crush the Financial Emergency Act and leave the city insolvent, Fernandez remembers.

The union relented after intense negotiations. On Oct. 17, it deposited $453 million before the banks closed, enough for the city to meet its bond obligations and payroll.

“They waited, literally, till about two minutes before midnight before they finally decided to take them,” Fernandez said. “So that was a rush, rush, rush to get the paper out. It was a matter of survival, in a sense.”

Fernandez said those experiences shape his outlook when looking at the current fiscal mess.

“I always take an optimistic view,” he said. “You have ups and downs in your life, and you have ups and downs in the financial world. Sure it was bad in 2008. … but they’ll work their way out of this.”

Fernandez has been spending his summers in New Harbor, Maine, since 1969. Beverley, his wife of 64 years, is a Maine native from Pittsfield.

Initially the trips were purely a retreat from the big city, but Fernandez eventually found himself playing a key role in developing the local bond market.

He was shopping at a New Harbor supermarket in 1970 when he came across a local newspaper reporting that the state Legislature was considering starting a state housing finance agency.

Sensing opportunity, he made an appointment to see someone in the Legislature and was promptly hired to help draft the legislation for what became the Maine State Housing Authority.

Fernandez said the authority served as a test case for issuing moral obligation bonds — which were based on an intention or an aspiration, but not a legal obligation, for the state to pay the agency’s debts if it was in default.

He was retained as bond counsel to defend the concept to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the enabling legislation.

In 1972, Fernandez drafted the enabling legislation for the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, a facility that gives hundreds of small issuers throughout the state access to the national credit markets in ways they wouldn’t be able to on their own.

“It’s something we take great pride in up here,” said Robert Lenna, executive director of the Bond Bank, who has known Fernandez for some 30 years. “We’re able to get triple-A interest rates for some little town in Maine that has 1,500 people in it.”

Lenna reckons that Fernandez is proudest of his achievements in Maine because it’s easy to see the tangible results of his work. “You can go to New York and look at the big projects,” he said, “but that’s different than driving down Colonial Street in Damariscotta, Maine, looking at the small elementary school and being able to say, 'Well, you know, I helped them build that.’ ”

Fernandez would later draft the enabling legislation for the Maine Health and Higher Educational Facilities ­Authority.

Today he focuses his efforts on the ­subject he knows best: local, general obligation bonds. He still tries to find new work for his colleagues, and in recent years he’s become the firm’s fire district specialist.

“For those who feel burned out regularly, just watching him is a pleasure to see what’s possible for some people,” said Howard Zucker, a partner who joined Hawkins in 1977.

About a month ago, Zucker sent out an e-mail asking if anyone had done work in North Dakota. Within a few minutes he received a response from Fernandez, in which the seasoned veteran said that back in 1957 he did a North Dakota GO deal to pay Korean War bonuses to returning veterans.

Twenty minutes later, Zucker received a hand-delivered copy of the bond opinion.

“That was 53 years ago and he can remember it — like boom! — and was able to find the opinion we delivered,” Zucker said. “It was unbelievable to me. I sent him a note back saying, 'There is a 50-year statute of limitations on stories!’ ”

Nixon Peabody’s Rumely recalls that when he joined Hawkins Delafield in 2002 as the firm’s first marketing director, Fernandez couldn’t understand why a law firm would need marketing at all.

Fernandez’s definition of marketing, he said, was to show up 15 minutes before everyone else came into the office, and open up the mail.

“In those days, requests for bond opinions came in unsolicited from all around the country,” Rumely said. “So his idea of building up his practice was just to arrive a little earlier than everyone else did, open up the mail, and see what bond opinions he could write for people in states that had no bond counsel.”

Indeed, much has changed since Fernandez began at the firm, earning $58 per week and printing his legal opinions on a mimeograph machine. But one thing hasn’t changed, colleagues say — his character.

Arthur Cohen, a partner at Hawkins who has been with the firm since graduating from law school 35 years ago, said Fernandez’s accomplishments are too numerous to mention, but the most ­significant may be that when people refer to him, the first word they mention is “gentleman.”

“He’s the pure essence of the gentleman,” Cohen said. “People that come here spend years always referring to him as 'Mr. Fernandez.’ But it’s not so much because of intimidation but more just because of respect.”

Added Zucker, “There’s never been a more loved figure at the firm.”

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