Josie Fernandez (1957–)

Josie Fernandez was superintendent of Hot Springs National Park from 2004 to 2018—the first woman to lead the park. Fernandez served a total of twenty-five years in the National Park Service, with fourteen being spent in Hot Springs (Garland County). Under Fernandez’s leadership, Hot Springs National Park rehabilitated its historic bathhouses and founded community engagement programs such as the Artist in Residence Program.

Josie Fernandez was born in Cuba in 1957; she has one younger brother. Her family eventually fled Cuba for political reasons and immigrated to the United States when she was twelve, settling in Hialeah, Florida, in 1969. She became an American citizen on July 4, 1976.

She spent one year at Miami Dade Junior College and then joined the U.S. Air Force, serving in active duty for five years. She was a public affairs specialist in military units in southern Florida and Italy until 1982, when she returned to school full time at what is now the University of Central Missouri, graduating with degrees in journalism and Spanish. In 1984, she reenlisted in the Air Force Reserve and began a career as a journalist at the Daily News in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve in September 1986, Fernandez began her federal civil service career in January 1988 with the Air Force Reserve in Sacramento, California. Within a year, she went to Biloxi, Mississippi, to become the primary spokesperson for the Hurricane Hunters, the U.S. Air Force unit that flies hurricane reconnaissance missions in support of the National Hurricane Center.

She joined the National Park Service in May 1993 as the regional public affairs officer for the Mid-Atlantic Region with headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two years later, she was assigned as management assistant to the Northeast Regional Director. In April 1996, she was named superintendent of Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Elverson, Pennsylvania. In April 1998, she moved to New York to be the superintendent of Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls and Waterloo, where she organized and presided over the sesquicentennial celebration of the First Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and was instrumental in two major preservation projects to protect the sites associated with the suffrage movement in America.

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Fernandez was called up to active duty as part of a presidential mobilization of reservists. She served one year on active duty at the Pentagon as a member of the Air Force Crisis Action Team, and in support positions at the Department of Defense Press Desk and in the Air Force Public Affairs Operations Center. She returned to the Pentagon for a brief period of additional duty at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In 2004, Fernandez was appointed the first female superintendent of Hot Springs National Park. She inherited a park that had fallen into disrepair. Roger Giddings, superintendent of Hot Springs National Park from 1981 to 2003, secured $18 million for improvements to Bathhouse Row. However, many of Giddings’s projects were not put into action during his time as superintendent and were passed on to Fernandez. At the time of her arrival, the Fordyce Bathhouse was used as a visitor center and the Buckstaff Bathhouse was being used as a functioning bath house. The remaining six bathhouses were empty and unused as the park continued to funnel funds into their upkeep costs. The park service worked with private investors to turn empty bathhouses into museums, shops, and restaurants. By 2018, every bathhouse on the row except the Maurice and the Hale were occupied by government agencies or businesses. The Hale was under renovation and became a hotel shortly after Fernandez retired.

Fernandez also established an Artist in Residence program in Hot Springs in 2004. As part of the program, artists from around the country lived in the park, produced art, and hosted public events. She also successfully raised the water rates from twenty-five cents per 1,000 gallons to two dollars and seventy cents, money that comes from local businesses that profit from the thermal waters. Fernandez also fought to prevent the city of Hot Springs from referring to itself as Hot Springs National Park. Fernandez argued that the city and the national park were separate entities and should not share the same name but was unsuccessful.

Fernandez is a lifetime member of the Reserve Officers Association and the Air Force Association (AFA) and served as president of the local AFA chapter. She is a charter member of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation and a Rotary International Paul Harris Fellow. She was a United Way of Garland County board member and a past member of the Ouachita Area Council of Boy Scouts of America.

In May 1999, the New York State Senate named her a “1999 Woman of Distinction.” In 2007, the Arkansas Business and Professional Women presented her with the “Women Mean Business” state award in a non-traditional profession. In March 2008, the Arkansas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution awarded her with the DAR Patriotism Medal during its 100th state convention. In 2016, the National Park Service Traffic Safety Coalition named her Superintendent of the Year.

Fernandez retired from the Air Force Reserve in 2016 at the rank of colonel, with her last duty assignment as a special assistant for public affairs to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. In February 2018, Fernandez retired as superintendent of Hot Springs National Park, and the position was passed to Laura Miller. Fernandez is married to Charles A. Hiett of Austin, Texas, also a U.S. Air Force veteran, and they have two children.

For additional information:
Brantley, Max. “Fernandez retiring as superintendent of Hot Springs National Park.” Arkansas Times, February 15, 2018. Online at https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2018/02/15/fernandez-retiring-as-superintendent-of-hot-springs-national-park (accessed September 22, 2020).

Cockrell, Ron. “The Hot Springs of Arkansas—America’s First National Park: Administrative History of Hot Springs National Park.” United States Department of the Interior, 2014.

“Interview with Josie Fernandez: Former Superintendent of Hot Springs National Park,” Interview Conducted by Christopher Thrasher, recorded by Abby Hanks. On file at Garland County Historical Society, Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Abby Hanks
National Park College Honors Program

Last Updated: 09/22/2020