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Mr. Mayor is also a green thumb
September 18, 2006, 12:00 AM By Heather Murtagh
Around town he’s known as Mayor Joe Fernekes —  a civic activist, longtime volunteer, husband and a father of two who always sports a smile.

Once he gets home, however, he’s a gardener extraordinary.

He loves the work he does outside the greenery of his backyard, but the 5-year-old vegetable growing hobby is an almost nightly activity for Fernekes. Boasting nearly 30 different types of tomatoes, hundreds of bushes of green beans and lots of zucchini, Fernekes produces more vegetables than he knows what to do with sometimes.

But his green thumb isn’t on display for South San Francisco to see. He reserves his time outside the green leaves for working in the community. Fernekes has spent the past 25 years working within the community, starting with the South San Francisco Unified School Board.

The 56-year-old was born in Garden Village, a small area surrounded by Daly City. He lived there until 1971 when he moved to South San Francisco at the age of 21. He graduated from Junipero Serra High School in San Bruno in 1968 before turning his sites to the University of San Francisco where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and teaching credentials. Eventually he attended San Francisco State University where he earned a master’s degree in administration.

Fernekes returned to South San Francisco to start teaching physical education in 1974. During his four years as a teacher, Fernekes met his future wife, Denise Bava, a fellow teacher at El Rancho Elementary School.

"The kids had us married before we were even thinking about it,” he said.

The couple now has two daughters, Danielle and Megan.

During one summer break from school,  Fernekes took a job at Koret of California. He was quickly moved up to the distribution center manager. He never returned to teaching. Today, Fernekes works as the material control manager for Bay Area Rapid Transit.  He held many jobs in between including working at Columbus Salami, for the city of South San Francisco and as the finance officer for the San Mateo-Foster City School District.

Fernekes began dedicating time in the community in the early ’80s when first elected for the first of three terms on the South San Francisco Unified School Board. He left his last term early when elected to City Council in 1991. Fernekes served as mayor in 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2006.

His commitment stems from his deep pride for South San Francisco — not South City he pointed out.

"I’m so proud of South San Francisco and the people. In the past people have called it South City. It’s South San Francisco. This is to show the county, we’re here. We’re strong,” he said.

This pride led to local events like the upcoming Day in the Park. This free celebration showcases all things South San Francisco from businesses to musicians and even restaurants. All funds raised from food sales go to local nonprofits and Fernekes has been known to cook up some hot dogs for the cause. The event kicks off with a pancake breakfast, it’ll feature a car show, a visit by Ronald McDonald and lots of free fun.

Because of his love and commitment to the city Councilwoman Karyl Matsumoto dubbed him Mr. South San Francisco.

"Joe knows everyone. He knows where people live. He has an institutional memory. He’s very good for South San Francisco. Joe has his hand in everything,” she said. "He just loves doing things for other people.”

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105. What do you think of this story? Send a letter to the editor:

Meet the mayor

Day in the Park will be held at Orange Memorial Park from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23.

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