Community leaders, friends and family from across the Santa Clarita Valley mourned the loss of well-known philanthropist and local community activist Cheri Fleming, co-owner of Valencia Acura, following the announcement of her death Monday.
She and husband Don Fleming had been together for 40 years and, on Tuesday, he said his heart is broken.
“She was my guiding light. She was my inspiration. She was my compass. She was all of those things, and she was a lot smarter than me, too,” Don added.
The Flemings moved to the SCV after purchasing Valencia Acura in 1997, and as they worked to turn it into one of the top Acura dealerships in customer loyalty and sales, Fleming worked to better her new community.
“Santa Clarita has lost one of its greatest champions,” College of the Canyons Chancellor Dianne G. Van Hook said. “In her service to others, Cheri Fleming showed us the profound impact that one person can make in the lives of others, and in shaping an entire community through her actions, words, high standards and care for others.”
Fleming felt it her duty to give back and immediately dove head-first into her new community’s philanthropic organizations, including the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital Foundation, Child & Family Center, American Cancer Society, SCV Chamber of Commerce and Boys & Girls Club of SCV, among others.
“Cheri was someone so special, and everyone who came in contact with her could just feel her energy and her passion. At Henry Mayo, she totally embraced our hospital with her trademark smile and her unwavering commitment to our programs and our services,” said Marlee Lauffer, president of Henry Mayo Foundation. “She was high-level leadership, (with) hands-on involvement. She was inspirational and always very kind. … Henry Mayo appreciates her and misses her, but we know that her mark lives on throughout our hospital, literally.”
Advocate for women
As a leader in the business community, Fleming found a passion in advocating for women like herself, including her executive assistant Stephanie Gurne.
“Cheri has been a big part of my life,” Gurne said. “She was my mentor, introducing me to Soroptimist and volunteering. I will make her proud and continue her legacy and will always cherish the memories we had together. Cheri was an amazing woman with a heart of gold.”
“This is a real tough one,” Santa Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth added. “Aside from being a business leader, Cheri mentored so many members of our community that are now leaders or have taken the skills from Cheri to other communities, and it definitely leaves a hole in our community.”
When asked what being a mentor has meant to her in her last interview in October, Fleming replied, “I am successful if I help others find success, which is why mentoring is so important to me. The highest compliment I could receive would be to have helped groom someone to become my replacement. I live every day embracing the true mission of Soroptimist, which is to empower others. I never feel threatened by the success of others; rather, helping others succeed enriches my own legacy.”
It was that sentiment that Joan Aschoff, Child & Family Center president and CEO, found so amazing about Fleming, saying that while Fleming’s incredible kindness struck her, it was also how much of an astute businesswoman she was.
“As (board) chair, she would help us achieve what we needed to achieve and yet, make everybody feel good about the decisions, make sure everybody was included in the decisions and everybody was acknowledged for their contribution to the process,” Aschoff said. “She just had this amazing skill of bringing people together and making them feel like they were a part of it. … She was an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Fleming has also been a mentor to local business owner and current Soroptimist President Kim Kurowski, who said she’d never seen her without her iconic smile.
“She always can raise you up, no matter what your feelings,” Kurowski added. “She’s always there with a kind word or good advice. She was always there for everybody.”
Teresa Todd, publicist and friend to Fleming, agreed with Kurowski, adding, “Cheri was everybody’s best friend. She was a gracious giver of her time, talent and treasure to everyone she could help. And, most importantly, she was an amazing wife and mother to a very special family.”
“Cheri and I worked together 34 of the 40 years I’ve known her,” son Brian Fleming added. “We had some amazing times that made for a wild and crazy life’s journey.”
Her service to local organizations never seemed to tire, and she and Don continued their active involvement with nonprofits through this year, hoping only to make a positive change in their community.
“They just don’t come any better than the Flemings — they were an incredible couple in our community,” Santa Clarita Councilman Bob Kellar said. “They have done so much for this community over the years. I look at Cheri’s passing as having lost a great friend, not only personally, but a great friend to this community.”
Legacy will live on
Community leaders agreed that Fleming’s legacy will live on across the SCV, continuing to inspire them long after she’s gone.
“Cheri leaves a great legacy of beauty, light, absolute class and extraordinary leadership,” said Greg McWilliams, chief policy officer and vice president of FivePoint Holdings LLC. “We will all continue to embrace that strength to make this world and our community a better place.”
“Cheri’s spirit and passion will live on as each of us continues to serve Santa Clarita with the inspiration of her boundless energy, infectious enthusiasm and heartfelt generosity,” Van Hook added. “There is and always will be a special place in my heart and my soul occupied by Cheri Fleming.”
In lieu of flowers, the family has established a legacy fund and donations can be made at go.soroptimist.org/in-memoriam/cheri-fleming. All donations are expected to directly contribute to aiding Soroptimist’s mission of helping women and girls around the world live their dreams.