In a brief entry on the Santa Clara University athletics site, baseball player Frank Fiscalini was said to have played the game with “the mind of a veteran, while keeping the heart of a rookie.”
Nearly 80 years later, it seems not much has changed.
Fiscalini, who turned 100 in the fall, still shines with the vigor of youth when recalling the fond memories he’s made while wearing the hats of a baseball player, World War II veteran, San Jose vice mayor, superintendent, CEO and great grandfather, among the many others in a life and career that has touched thousands.
He has experienced enough joy, pain, success, failure and love for three lifetimes, and inspired those around him every step of the way with his genuine and dedicated demeanor, according to his family, friends and former colleagues.
“I don’t want to sound crazy, but I felt he was one of the greatest men I ever met,” Guy Klitgaard told San José Spotlight.
Klitgaard was hired in 1959 by Fiscalini, then East Side Union High School District superintendent, to teach at Andrew Hill High School. He was later promoted to help Fiscalini open up several schools in the district, and to serve as principal at Silver Creek and Independence high schools. He worked under Fiscalini for more than 20 years.
“He was a great guy to work for, he never looked over your shoulder,” Klitgaard said. When challenging moments arose, Klitgaard said Fiscalini told him, “‘You do what you think is right and I’ll back you.’ How’s that for a boss?”
Early in his career, Fiscalini taught in the East Side Union High School District—which only had three schools when he was appointed superintendent in 1956. He stayed with the district through 1982, spearheading the founding of 10 new schools.
“Among the many remarkable aspects of Frank’s life are the vast diversity of ways that his leadership has impacted our community — invariably for the better — in our schools, the arts, health care system, government, neighborhoods, and so many others,” said former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “I have yet to find anyone who has crossed paths with the man who doesn’t offer some praise for him and his work.”
Family brings strength
Born and raised as one of seven children in San Bernardino to immigrant parents from Northern Italy, Fiscalini said he learned Spanish “in the street” as a child, trading language skills when playing with his Latino neighbors.
The language skills would come in handy as he opened some of the first integrated, large high schools in the South Bay as East San Jose’s Latino population grew rapidly during his tenure.
“It opened doors for you I think that maybe wouldn’t have been easily opened otherwise. People knew I cared,” Fiscalini told San José Spotlight. “I spent a lot of time in the community and I think it’s necessary. People need to know their superintendent.”
Fiscalini moved to Northern California to attend Santa Clara University in 1942, but soon after enlisted in the Army and was sent to Texas for medic training and on to France in the battle against Nazis.
His years in the military interrupted his college education and pursuit of baseball, but he never looked at it as a burden, he said.
“Nobody likes to leave home, but I think our generation had a great spirit of service and it was more in that context. ‘Dammit, I’m gonna serve my country.’ And you were willing to do whatever you needed to do,” Fiscalini said. “They could have put me any place.”
He returned home for a visit after the war, and was excited to hop into his 1929 Ford Model A, which he had purchased for $100 from an employee at his brother’s gas station in San Bernardino before the war. But it was gone. His dad said Fiscalini’s brother Jim had sold it while he was away.
Laughing while recalling the memory of what his dad told him, Fiscalini said, “‘He didn’t think you were going to come home.’”
His family recently helped organize a Model A parade for his 100th birthday, and Fiscalini was able to ride in a 1931 model, similar to the one he had in his youth, he said.
Following the war, Fiscalini quickly married Joan, whom he met in junior college in Southern California, and returned to Santa Clara University to earn his degree. The two moved to San Jose, had four kids together and remained married for 64 years until Joan’s death in 2010. Fiscalini said she was an easygoing person, who was “totally committed” to family.
“She took good care of me. There is a lot going on in one’s life when you’re building a career and building a family simultaneously,” Fiscalini said. “I don’t want to say she was perfect because I don’t believe any of us are, but if anyone approached it, she surely did.”
The family has since grown, and Fiscalini can count 13 grandkids to his name, and 10 great grandkids, as old as 16 and as young as one. Without hesitation, he said his family is what he is most proud of during his century of life.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” he said.
Lisa Hausle, Fiscalini’s daughter, said their growing family has remained tight-knit for decades because of the love and support of her parents.
“You have your ups and downs as a family, but we always come back together and always support each other through good times and bad times, because that’s what we were shown,” Hausle told San José Spotlight. “They were both great examples of human beings and of parents.”
Hitting his stride
After fighting a war, graduating from Santa Clara University, earning his master’s degree in education from Stanford University, a doctorate of education development and management from University of Northern Colorado, and leading a more than 30-year career in education, some might slow down. But Fiscalini was only hitting his stride.
After retiring from the East Side Union High School district, he was hired as CEO of Alexian Brothers hospital system, where he worked for five years. He then took the helm of a massive restoration project of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic church in downtown San Jose.
Within a three-year span, he oversaw the structural work and decorative refurbishing of the church’s dome, paintings and murals, organ and much more.
Coming off of the success of the restoration, Fiscalini ran for mayor of San Jose in 1990 against Susan Hammer, a city councilmember at the time. The race was one of the closest in city history, with Hammer beating out Fiscalini by less than 1% of the vote, he said.
Fiscalini’s team urged him to fight the results, or push for a recount, but he declined, preferring to graciously accept defeat.
“One thing that sports teaches you is that you’re going to win sometimes and you’re going to lose sometimes. And when you lose, you can’t bury your head in the sand. You get up to play another day,” he said.
Two years later, Fiscalini ran for and was elected to the San Jose City Council, serving two terms and working well with his former rival Hammer for several years.
He said it was important to always maintain self-respect when running for and holding political office.
“When you’re in the political realm, you represent the people that elect you, not yourself, and there is a big difference,” Fiscalini said. “I think today, we are seeing more representatives of self than we probably are of the electorate, and that doesn’t bode well for decision making.”
The ultimate statesman
His leadership style did not go unnoticed by the community and his colleagues. He was later appointed vice mayor by former Mayor Ron Gonzales.
Edith Ramirez, an assistant city manager in Morgan Hill, started her nearly 30-year public service career as a staffer for Fiscalini during his second council term. She said he is known by many of those who worked with him as the “ultimate statesman” because of the way he carried himself. He was a foundational influence in her decision to continue in public service, she said.
“I’m getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. Watching him on the council, the way he interacted with his colleagues and with staff and the community really placed this work as something very special, something honorable,” she told San José Spotlight. “He was always humble, he was always respectful.”
Ramirez said Fiscalini encouraged his staff to look beyond their own responsibilities and to do good wherever they could. The professionalism, grace and compassion he brought to the office had a cascading effect, she said.
“It really allows us as an entire community to elevate, to be more thoughtful, to be more caring and to be more intentional,” Ramirez said.
Reflecting on his time in office, Fiscalini said he is proud of the city’s work to establish lifelong learning institutions like the Tech Museum and the Children’s Discovery Museum. A founding board member of Opera San Jose, he said he hopes the city’s current leaders will do more to prioritize funding for arts of all kinds.
“We’ll be a lot happier and a lot more fruitful if we can have a strong arts program,” he said.
At the century mark, having been in San Jose and the South Bay for 80 years, Fiscalini said he’s witnessed the Valley of Heart’s Delight transition from an agricultural society to Silicon Valley, and he doesn’t lament the changes.
With so many institutions of higher learning in the region attracting talent from all over the world, he thinks Silicon Valley is well positioned for whatever the next big venture is.
“I’m confident that whatever the next stage is, we will likely be very successful. It very easily could come in space,” Fiscalini said, with a nod to the future. “I hope I’m around to see it.”
Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.
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