Herman: At 100, a local treasure, WWII vet and H-E-B hero dies


Fred Cortinez passed away March 23. He was 100. His obituary tells us he died “peacefully in his sleep.” Survivors include four children and an appropriate gaggle of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are part of the reward for a long life, well led.

Fred also leaves behind a quiet legacy, known to some, as the kind of person who, in his own way and for the right reasons, made a difference in our country and our community. Fred was the kind of guy we don’t build statues for, but we can’t build a community without.

His wife, Lawrence (her given name was Lorenza but everyone knew her as Lawrence), died in 1993. They married in 1947 and, as the obit says, when she died, “Fred, then 76 years old, decided that he no longer wished to stay home. Hoping to return to work, he applied for a position as a bagger at his local H-E-B.”

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He was still there in summer 2012 when, spurred by a reader who thought he was a local treasure at the Hancock Center supermarket, I met and tried to keep up with Fred as he did his daily rounds as a “customer service representative.”

He retired in 2014 after 21 years at that H-E-B. Add Fred to your list of folks who figure out how to have a productive and rewarding new chapter somewhat later in life. And for Fred, it came after doing what many of his great generation did.

Born in Austin, he served as an Army squad leader in Europe and Africa during World War II, earning a Purple Heart. Postwar, he owned and ran several Exxon service stations in Austin. These were the kind of service stations that actually offered service.

Infused with the entrepreneurial spirit, he also had restaurants, a beauty shop and a music company.

On the day I shadowed Fred at the H-E-B where he was well-known to many regular customers, his tasks included making sure all was ready for a regular Thursday morning group that gathered there for pastry, coffee and conversation. Compared with Fred, these were the young folks: 89, 92, 88 … .

I met Fred shortly after 6 a.m. that day as he was setting up the tables and getting everything ready for the gathering. As I wrote back then, he had no time to chat with me as he dutifully moved throughout the big store and gathered what was needed.

A couple of hours later, Fred finally could slow down for a question or two, including the one that it doesn’t take a professionally trained journalist to ask.

Why?

“I don’t like to stay home by myself,” he told me. “The money comes in handy, but, no, I don’t have to work. I love it. I love to work. That’s all I’ve done all my life.”

He prided himself on treating the customers as “kinfolk.” And I watched him enact that philosophy.

His daughter Becky Cortinez told me this week that Fred had retired for no particular reason other than he was ready for what she said he called his second retirement.

It turns out Fred was wrong in 2012 when he said, “I tell you, when you quit working you’re gone.” Turns out all you really have to do is work into your mid-90s. Post-retirement, Fred continued to live by himself and remain active with friends and family.

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Fred was blessed with good health in his retirement years, his daughter said, until he developed something his 1917-model body couldn’t shake. “He was fine until he just got an infection and couldn’t fight it off,” she said. “But he was still up and about, socializing in his wheelchair because it was easier for him.”

“Up until the very, very end, it was good,” she said of her dad’s life.

I was glad to hear that many of his H-E-B friends attended the March 28 recitation of the Holy Rosary and March 29 Mass of Christian Burial. H-E-B sent food for the reception.

“There were lots of people there,” his daughter said, happiness in her voice.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler paid tribute to Fred Cortinez in a Facebook post, noting we had lost “an honest-to-goodness hero.”

“Fred Cortinez was a 100-year-old World War II vet who raised a big happy family and owned several thriving businesses before beginning a job bagging groceries at H-E-B at the age of 76. He was an example for us all to shoot for. Rest in peace, Fred,” the mayor wrote.

A moment of memory, please, for Fred Cortinez: At home, at war, at the gas station, at the H-E-B, thank you for your service.



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