Three things about Cheri Fleming truly stand out.

First, she was a business success. She and her husband, Don, bought the flailing Valencia Acura in 1997, and in a worst-to-first kind of turnaround, they transformed it into an award-winning car dealership. She was named “Dealer of the Year” only nine years after buying it.

Second, she was an indefatigable volunteer. She was involved in everything from the Boys and Girls Club of the Santa Clarita Valley to Habitat for Humanity to the American Cancer Society. She was particularly active with two causes: the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, serving on the hospital board and the hospital’s foundation board for years, sometimes as chair, and raising millions of dollars for it; and Soroptimist International, which she joined years ago to help boost local girls and women in the Santa Clarita Valley but ended up as president of the organization’s Americas region where she led operations in 19 countries.

Her civic work is what she’s best known for in the community, and she rightly was awarded numerous honors, including the Business Journal’s Lifetime Achievement award at our Women’s Council event two months ago. 

But a lesser known and more personal aspect is the final one I want to mention because I’ll always remember it and respect her for it: She refused to let her health challenges define her.

She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was only 28 years old. And more than a decade ago, during surgery to correct cervical instability, she suffered a stroke as a result of a punctured artery at the base of her neck. She had to relearn basic skills – including how to walk.

Four years ago, after suffering days of headaches and having difficulty holding her head up, she discovered her cervical instability had returned – this time even worse. She underwent a 5-hour neck surgery in which six of seven vertebrae were fused. She was hospitalized for four days and she had to wear a neck brace for three months as part of her path to recovery.

After that, she once again went about her business and remained relentlessly optimistic and pleasant. She dealt with her health issues by saying: “Challenges never define you. How you react to them and deal with them often does.”

Last month in the Santa Clarita Valley newspaper the Signal, she was asked about her role as a mentor. Her reply, so typically Cheri Fleming-esque, was this: “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.”

Fleming suffered a brain aneurism three weeks ago, was hospitalized and died last week at the age of 69.

The Valley area lost an important leader. She was a business success and a huge civic figure. What’s more, she was a truly fine person. She demonstrated how to comport oneself when confronting big challenges.