Writing an obituary is never easy. You try to get an accurate measure of a person by sharing anecdotes of their life. You get as close as possible but you always end up omitting things.
I did my best here with Milt Fernandez, founder of Pemberton Emergency Services.
Longtime Pembertonian remembered as an “easygoing” storyteller and community helper
By Jesse Ferreras
Milton “Milt” Fernandez.
A cab driver, a fire chief, a storyteller renowned throughout the Pemberton Valley, he died July 12, just 18 days shy of his 73rd birthday and left it a safer place than when he arrived.
“Milt Fernandez was a dedicated individual who gave many years for nothing as a volunteer fire chief in Pemberton,” said friend and former mayor Shirley Henry. “He just worked tirelessly and he was always out there trying to get the best deal for the village.” He is remembered today as much for his slick, shiny black hair, described once as a “brand new factory shine that would look like a ’57 Chevy,” as his contribution to ensuring Pembertonians got where they needed to go, whether that be school, the hospital or to a fire in progress.
He drove school buses for the district through the Pemberton Meadows, a favoured driver for field trips because he knew how to make good time. He helped acquire new equipment for Pemberton’s fire hall so that firefighters could tend to emergencies. He would drive expectant mothers from Pemberton to Squamish and is believed to have delivered over 60 en-route births.
Born in 1938, the son of a preacher from Trinidad, Milt grew up in East Vancouver and attended Templeton Secondary School. He showed an early passion for emergency services, attaching a siren to his bike and riding after fire trucks when they went out on emergency calls. Like the trucks before him, his siren would force cars to the side of the road.
Before coming to Pemberton he worked as a Greyhound driver, clocking “a million miles” as he drove out of a station in Ashcroft. He married wife Thelma in 1959 and had a son, Michael, and a daughter, Kathryn, who died in 1966.
Being a storyteller, many in Pemberton knew Milt to embellish details. That was a key fact to consider when you heard him tell about how he came to the Spud Valley.
At a 2010 Tea and Tales session held by the Pemberton Museum, Milt told of arriving in Toronto in the late 1960s after quitting his Greyhound job.
Wearing a suit and tie, he took a limousine from the airport to the train station where he boarded an “atomic train” to Montreal, at the time the newest train that Canada had ever seen.
Each of the cars was named after a province and Milt walked right in to the “B.C.” car without a ticket. Right away he found himself seated next to a Mountie in red serge.
Looking around nervously, he began conversing with the Mountie, learning quickly that he was stationed in Squamish and that he had to travel once a week to enforce the law in Pemberton.
“‘Everybody knew I was coming because they sent smoke signals from Squamish to Mount Currie,'” Milt recalled the Mountie saying, “‘and they were all like angels when I arrived there.’
“He made it sound so interesting I had to come and have a look.”
On his first visit to town he saw everyone at the Pemberton Hotel staring at him. He bumped into two friends he’d known in Vancouver and soon everyone in town was shaking his hand.
“I said, this is a nice town to be in,” Milt said. “How many people here, 271? Perfect! Nobody would know me!”
In 1969, according to a eulogy written by friend George Henry, Milt packed up a five-tonne truck with his wife, his son, his dog and his cat and started the long drive to Pemberton. It took six days to get there, owing in large part to a landslide that blocked the road.
“We sat there for 24 hours hoping they would open it which they didn’t because another slide came down behind me,” he said. “BC Rail brought in a car for us. We spent several nights in there, eating steak dinners, my dog was eating steaks that thick.
“Eventually the road opened and we got through to Pemberton. She (Milt’s wife) thought oh boy, why did I say yes?”
Milt arrived in Pemberton at a time when it was growing bit by bit. The highway had only been open for three years, all the roads were made of gravel and all the houses got their water from wells. Winter brought extreme cold and the only reliable transportation out of town was a rail car that ran every day.
Milt thought it the perfect place to start a cab service. He started Pemberton Transportation Ltd., a company that included a taxi, a charter bus, a mail truck and an ambulance. Milt would drive shoppers back and forth to Mount Currie, to the hospital in the city, anywhere they needed to go for necessities. And the myths soon began.
“Milt doesn’t just drive the taxi, he drives the ambulance,” his eulogy read. “Not only that, sometimes he used the ambulance as a taxi. He’d run the taxi all night and drive the ambulance all day if there was an emergency.
“Passengers who got in didn’t know if they were going to get transportation or a transfusion.”
Former Pemberton Mayor Ben Cherry asked Milt if he would like to run a fire department and he initially refused, saying he knew nothing about it, but the mayor didn’t believe him. Milt later got a look at Pemberton’s fire hall and reconsidered.
“I went down and I looked in the fire hall and I said, oh shit, what kind of crap is this?” he said. “There was an old beat up truck with no roof on it, and they told me the temperature went down to minus 30. I said you can’t drive that, there’s no snow tires on it, there’s nothing, it’s junk!”
Pemberton soon put up 20 per cent of the money needed to get a later model truck and added another truck for rescue operations, this one a vehicle that Milt attained through connections with BC Tel.
“I decided we needed a vehicle for search and rescue but the village didn’t want to give me any,” he said. “I got hold of BC Tel and told them about all their workmen that were going to drown because we couldn’t get to them because we had no vehicle. So BC Tel came out with a vehicle, and now we have a search and rescue vehicle.”
Milt’s efforts to establish an emergency services program, serving as a volunteer fire chief thereafter, didn’t just make him a name in Pemberton.
“Wherever I went as a representative of local government, I was always approached by retired fire chiefs or current fire chiefs asking about Milt,” said Susie Gimse, chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District’s board of directors.
“I was appointed to the Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. and I was on that board for, I don’t know, four years approximately, maybe longer. I often would be asked by retired fire chiefs, current fire chiefs, about Milt Fernandez.
“He did so much for the community and I don’t know if he was fully recognized for his contribution over the years.”
Milt never swore. He never wore jeans. He kept cool under pressure and knew how to deal with serious situations. He brought an ambulance service to Pemberton and started a real fire department.
He was known throughout his life as a storyteller with a great sense of humour. And according to his eulogy, that’s precisely how he’d want to be remembered.