Honoring a hero

MARQUETTE – Michigamme resident Cindy Coleman said a recent trip to Washington, D.C., for a special ceremony was an incredible experience.

“It was very moving,” she said. “But it was also like a four-hour funeral for someone who died 40 years ago.”

The ceremony was in honor of her husband Joe Fandino, who was died in Vietnam in 1972 while serving as a diplomat, and other members of the diplomatic corps who perished while serving this country.

His name, along with the names of seven others who died while serving in diplomatic capacities, was engraved in marble, added to the American Foreign Service Association’s wall of honor.

Joseph Fandino – “everybody called him Joe,” his widow said – was born in 1932 in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. His mother had emigrated from Puerto Rico the year before, meeting his father, who came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1928.

“Joe grew up during the Depression in a poor neighborhood,” Coleman said. “His parents scraped together the money to send him to the local parochial high school, Power Memorial Academy.”

Fandino finished his four years there, then went to Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. After his first year of college, he volunteered for the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, serving four years.

Fandino then earned a degree from Columbia University and enrolled in Columbia law school, but after a year, he became intrigued when some friends were taking the foreign service exam.

“His friends told him he was of the wrong ethnic background, but Joe took the exam anyway and was accepted,” Coleman said. Since he was fluent in Spanish, Fandino was sent to the Dominican Republic, where he served as an aide to U.S. Ambassador John Bartlow Martin, then met and fell in love with the ambassador’s daughter, Cindy.

Now retired – twice (more on that later) – Coleman spent summers in Michigamme with her family, including her father who was also an author.

Fandino and Martin wed in 1967 and traveled in the course of Fandino’s diplomatic duties to a number of posts, including in Spain, where their son Greg was born in 1968 and daughter Lisa was born in 1969.

Fandino transfered to Washington, D.C., in 1970, working as Cuban desk officer. Little more than a year later, he joined was sent as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development to Vietnam in September 1971.

“The kids and I stayed in Washington,” Coleman said. “Joe died June 27, 1972. How did he die? Believe me, I wish I could tell you. We don’t know. No one knows. The state department lists his cause of death as unknown.

“Not knowing has been difficult for everyone.”

Widowed with two young children, Coleman worked in several programs in Washington, including with refugees from Southeast Asia. Eventually, when she decided to retire, Coleman decided to return to Michigamme and its happy memories from childhood.

“That was 15 years ago,” she said. “Then I heard L’Anse needed a Spanish teacher and psychologist-social worker. I had background in all three, so I went there to work for the next six years.”

Which is when she retired for a second time.

Then about a year ago, Coleman was contacted by the American Foreign Service Association, asking her to help place a wreath at the Vietnam Memorial for Memorial Day 2012. She placed the wreath with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns during a ceremony that featured speakers by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

“It was really an incredible ceremony,” she said.

In December, she received another call from the association saying that Joe’s name was being added to a plaque of honor May 3, which is marked as Foreign Affairs Day.

“My whole family came, from around the world, to be there for the ceremony,” Coleman said. That included her daughter and grandson, her son and granddaughter, two of her brothers and other family members from different sections of the globe.

“(Secretary of State John) Kerry told a funny story about Joe,” she said. “Kerry spoke about each one who died. It was so moving.”

That wasn’t the only honor for Fandino that day.

“Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the house rep for south Florida, entered it into the Congressional Record last week, and had a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol building on May 3rd in Joe’s name,” Coleman said. “I got the flag on Saturday.”

The flag will fly in Michigamme for the Memorial Day celebration, Coleman said.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.