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A TASIS Lifetime

Fernando González has been associated with TASIS since 1972 in several instructional, administrative, and executive roles. A graduate of Phillips Academy Andover, he holds a B.A. from Harvard University in visual studies and studied architecture at the Harvard School of Design. He was chairman of the art department at TASIS, was administrative director of the TASIS Schools for 20 years, served as interim headmaster of TASIS England in 2004, and has also served on the governing boards of all TASIS schools, including the Puerto Rican school TASIS Dorado and TASIS Portugal, which he founded, and the TASIS Foundation. He lives with his wife in Puerto Rico, where he is president of the TASIS Dorado School and restores houses through his company, Design & Build. Below, he shares his TASIS story.

As I approach my 50th year with TASIS, I reflect fondly on my many wonderful memories and challenges that changed a one-year leave of absence from Harvard Design School in 1972/73 into a lifelong experience. Without question TASIS transformed my life and presented me with opportunities most people can only dream of having. TASIS and Mrs. Fleming defined my life and that of my family, for which I am eternally grateful.

It would take an entire book to describe what TASIS has meant to me over the past 48 years, but I will share some highlights and insights which will hopefully explain why my commitment and love for TASIS has remained steadfast throughout my lengthy career. Perhaps in so doing, I will also touch on some of your own experiences which made TASIS special for you.

While teaching art at Phillips Academy, my Andover classmate Topper Lynn, who was the TASIS Admissions Director, visited and spoke to me about the possibility of teaching art in Europe. I was intrigued but was about to begin my architecture graduate program at Harvard. A year later, a contract arrived in the mail with a handwritten note from Mrs. Fleming, whom I had never met, saying, “I have heard such high praise from a close friend that I am offering you employment at The American School in Switzerland as Chairman of the Art Department for the next academic year. I want you to create the finest art program of any school in Europe.” Thus began my love affair with MCF who became my second mother, mentor, and inspiration even after her death in 2009. Even today I think of what she would do before making a decision.

Fernando Gonzales

The opportunity to build an art program from scratch and spend a year traveling in Europe to see firsthand the great works I had studied in art history was too great a temptation. Furthermore, my Design School instructors strongly encouraged me to take a year off, advising me that it would only strengthen my background in architecture. I had spent a summer traveling in Europe and fell in love with Italy. During my senior year at college, I decided to study Italian, where I met my future wife. When I told Mrs. Fleming that I would be bringing my fiancée to Lugano, she suggested that it would be inappropriate to live together in a boarding school environment and “strongly recommended” that we get married. A teaching contract for my soon-to-be wife followed and TASIS became our honeymoon. Little did I know at the time that Mrs. Fleming’s vision of “Europe as a classroom” was about to become my own.

My first visit to the Lugano campus two days after my wedding was a huge disappointment. Not only was the campus in pieces from having combined the Vezia and the Montagnola campuses into one, but with two weeks left before the start of school, there was no way I thought the campus would be ready. Secondly, the art facilities which I was supposed to convert into the best art program in Europe were in the absolute worst location on campus and would not work for the program I had in mind. I soon learned my second lesson from Mrs. Fleming: “Do not take no for an answer!” Upon sharing my concerns with the headmaster, he said that he was not in charge of campus developments and that I would have to discuss it with Mrs. Fleming. An appointment was set for the following day which I approached with great trepidation, not knowing whether I would become the shortest term employee in TASIS history. However, her charm immediately put me at ease and when she asked me to make the drinks, including her beloved Old Fashioned, which I had no idea how to prepare, she said, “Young man, anyone who is going to work for me has to be able to make an Old Fashioned!” I was amused many years later when this anecdote was included in the musical about her life, MCF: What a Life!

Before long I was absorbed in her fascinating world and soon she knew my entire life story and that of my family, in which she took genuine interest. This was a crash course in MCF 101: her ability to connect with people, from a corporate CEO to a maid, by making them feel like the most important person in the world, is legendary. Over the years, I often marvelled at her ability to motivate people by making them think her ideas were theirs. 

Our conversation finally led to the purpose of the meeting when she said, “Now, what can I do for you?” When I explained that my plans for the art department would have to be curtailed and that the art facilities were not adequate to realize her dream, she replied immediately, “That will not do…let’s take a walk.” Within 10 minutes of touring the campus to show her a cramped ski storage closet which was to become a photo lab and the back end of a temporary prefab building with paper thin walls that was converted to an art studio, Mrs. Fleming understood my concerns immediately. 

Fernando Gonzales

By the end of the tour, the art studio was relocated to the lovely brick vaulted ground floor of Coach House which was flooded with natural light where student art work could be easily displayed at the heart of the campus. The new photo lab took over a section of the chemistry prep room and a nearby bathroom was added as the film developing room. I was stunned that what would, in most schools, take months to change had been done in a day. I quickly realized this was a woman who knew what she wanted and did not hesitate to make it happen. I also was convinced that MCF would serve as an outstanding role model and provide challenges and opportunities of a lifetime. 

Despite antagonizing both the math and science departments by stealing their spaces on my first day on the job, I soon became part of an extremely close-knit team of extraordinary educators who were adventuresome, dedicated, talented, hard-working, and above all loved their subject matter and working closely with students. Many of them have remained my closest friends over the years. Above all else, it has been the quality of the faculty and the relationships we have built that have made my career at TASIS so rewarding. It is the special community we built, along with diverse and motivated students who were willing to be challenged. Many of the students from my earliest TASIS years have stayed in touch and become friends. And my two sons, who are TASIS England graduates, are the best reflection of what a TASIS education represents. 

One of the highlights in my early years was the addition of an architecture course to the curriculum which enabled me to take a class of 12 students to the South of France to design an abandoned hamlet of six 18th century buildings into holiday homes. I fell in love with the Ardèche and Les Tapies, which, over the years, I purchased and restored into an artists’ community. For the past 15 summers I have co-directed the very successful Les Tapies Arts and Architecture Program alongside TASIS England master teacher John Smalley. Its success is based on MCF’s formula for starting a school: find a beautiful property, attract the best faculty who will serve as role models and have a passion for teaching, create a challenging program of studies and activities which will stretch the students, and sprinkle these ingredients with a generous dose of tender loving care to nurture and bring out the best in the students. I particularly enjoy the opportunity of being back in the classroom again and working closely with students which brings my TASIS career full circle.

I have been fortunate to have been involved in helping to create new TASIS schools around Europe, including TASIS England, TASIS Greece, TASIS Cyprus, TASIS France, as well as TASIS Dorado in Puerto Rico. The latest venture, TASIS Portugal, is proving to be my greatest challenge because converting a commercial shopping center into a beautiful TASIS campus in less than a year is a huge undertaking. I once asked Mrs. Fleming if she had any regrets in her long, successful life and she responded immediately: “I only regret the things I did not do, not the ones I did.” I have tried to emulate this positive approach to life in my own career.

My TASIS experience has been a richly rewarding journey full of opportunities, challenges, friendships, successes and, yes, failures, which have made me grow and reach for the next goal. When I asked Mrs. Fleming at the age of 92 for her blessing in starting TASIS Dorado, she said: “Fernando, if it is in your heart you must do it and, if I was 10 years younger, I would do it with you!” It was this joie de vivre that made working with MCF such an inspiration and a privilege to have played a part in helping her realize her dreams, which often became my own. 

 

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