Tom Hernandez, at a 1972 celebration honoring his 25 years of starring as Don Diego, flanked by a bevy of Fairest of the Fairs: Sandra Poole Hampton, Miss Peninsula, 1967; Fran Rooks Williams, Miss Pacific Beach, 1966; Gloria O’Rear Laken, Miss Del Mar, 1946; Pat Thompson Long, Miss National City, 1956; Mary Lamberton Parker, Miss Chula Vista, 1968; and Lauren McGuire, 1972 Fairest of the Fair.
Don Diego …
- Shares his moniker (“Don” is a Spanish honorific) with Don Diego de la Vega, the identity of fictional Zorro (Spanish for fox). Coincidentally, Tom Hernandez acted in episodes of the popular late 1950s TV show, “Zorro.”
- Amassed the longest-lasting role in show business history: 37 years as the San Diego County Fair’s charismatic, debonair, goodwill ambassador.
- Began his Fair reign in 1947, the year in which the Fairest of the Fair pageant, which lasted through 2004, was inaugurated. Both innovations were devised to help revive the Fair, which had been temporarily suspended during World War II.
- Was originally conceived by the Fair’s publicity department as an image, not an actual person. An artist-created illustration of a dashing caballero, sombrero in hand, was used on promotional materials until it was determined to hire an actor to play the role. Tom Hernandez was the obvious and unanimous choice.
- Missed only one year at the Fair between 1947 and his death in 1984. In 1948, Don Diego’s “alter ego” Tom Hernandez toured with the road company of “The Cisco Kid,” precluding Don Diego’s ability to appear in Del Mar.
- Typically, began his duties several weeks before the Fair opened each summer. Usually accompanied by members of the Fairest of the Fair Court, Don Diego regaled city councils and appeared at service clubs to gin up interest for the annual extravaganza.
- During the Fair, in addition to daily escorting the Fairest of the Fair Court around the Fairgrounds, Don Diego introduced Grandstand shows, autographed memorabilia, enthusiastically welcomed guests and was never too busy or pretentious to pose for a picture with his legions of adoring fans.
- Was always in costume; always in character; always charming and charismatic. A consummate professional who loved what he did, Don Diego was beloved by all. He lives on in the spirit of the San Diego County Fair and the Don Diego Scholarship Foundation.
Historical information taken primarily from San Diego County Fair archives and from other local sources.