Lou Hernandez, the 18-year veteran CEO of the crisis call center Helpline, is retiring at month's end and not running for re-election to the Utility Board this fall.
At age 70, it's just time, he said Friday, manning the office at Poinciana Plaza by himself.
"We never have enough volunteers," Hernandez said, smiling. "We help thousands of people a year. We're the best kept secret."
But Hernandez, a Vietnam veteran who has devoted 30 years to social services in Key West and served on the Utility Board for half that time, can't afford to retire full time and stay on the island.
"I'm going to be in and out of Key West," Hernandez said. "Typical retirees, your savings are gone in two years. How do you pay for your house? You've got to have at least two jobs to stay here."
Hernandez was at Tuesday's City Commission meeting to witness the uproar over whether Key West should allow a 110-unit senior housing complex that includes assisted living on the Truman Waterfront at a discount rent.
"It was emotional; I thought, 'I should be able to retire here,'" said Hernandez, who plans to travel this summer and is kicking around the idea of relocating to Mexico and renting out his home here.
He said with his savings and Social Security, he can't afford to stay in Key West.
Many in the island's nonprofit realm already miss Hernandez.
"He is a respected community leader and has consistently been a valuable member of Monroe County's homeless continuum-of-care, even serving a term as chairman of the board during a very tumultuous time," said the Rev. Steve Braddock, CEO and president of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition. "I wish him many blessings in his well-deserved retirement."
Hernandez remembers the day he first stepped onto the island, Thanksgiving 1977, for vacation with his partner, Danny Fleming.
"It was love at first sight," Hernandez said, noting that he flew Air Sunshine from Miami to Key West after a business trip to Seattle. "I landed in winter clothes, an overcoat over my arm. Danny met me in shorts and flip-flops saying, 'Quick, you have to change. We're going to buy a house.'"
A year later, they had bought one and in 1983 left Alexandria, Va., to make a Conch cottage in Old Town their home.
In the early 1990s, Hernandez worked as an HIV counselor for the county Health Department.
"Back when they drew blood," he said.
He also worked on the mayoral campaign of Richard Heyman, who in 1983 was one of the first openly gay Americans elected to public office. Heyman served two terms and later died of pneumonia brought on by AIDS.
Fleming, Hernandez's partner of 23 years, died of AIDS-related illness in 1994. His name is on the black granite memorial that sits at the foot of White Street Pier.
Hernandez helped create the memorial, too.
Born in Goliad, Texas, to an Army officer and housewife, Hernandez is the eldest of four sons, and divided his childhood between Washington, D.C., and the family headquarters in Houston, where he started high school.
After earning a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Texas A M University, Hernandez entered the Army, serving from 1967 to 1970. He did a yearlong tour in Vietnam as psychological operations officer and was awarded the Bronze Star.
Returning home, Hernandez worked for the U.S. Public Health Service in Maryland and then the General Services Administration in D.C. before spending a decade as a partner in a firm that bought and renovated homes.
Helpline Inc., which began as a Zonta service project in 1982, today is a 24/7 call center with a $130,000 annual budget.
Keeping filled 48 shifts a week, including the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. slot, isn't always easy in Key West. So since Hernandez took the job -- recruited personally by late City Commissioner Merili McCoy, who was on the nonprofit's board -- Dec. 1, 1995, he has manned more than his share of volunteer shifts in addition to his CEO tasks.
Hernandez took the Helpline job when it provided no benefits and paid $2,000 a year less than his county salary. But he trusted McCoy, who he called his "political godmother."
McCoy was a Helpline volunteer as well.
"She volunteered up to three weeks before she died," Hernandez said.
Volunteers may work from home after completing training. They're armed with the numbers of about 400 service providers across the Florida Keys.
Most of the calls concern homelessness, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide.
"We're not here to solve your problem; we're here to help you find a way that you can," Hernandez said.
The nonprofit's board is expected to announce Hernandez's successor next week.
Meanwhile, the mayor's wife, Cheryl Cates, has filed paperwork to run for the Utility Board seat Hernandez will vacate Oct. 1.
Hernandez on Friday said he is ready to travel, do some fishing and figure out his next chapter.
"I'm going to go on a long sabbatical," he said with a laugh. "A sabbatical from Key West."