Henry Fortunato, a charismatic shaper of Kansas City's intellectual and history communities, died on Monday. He was 62.
Fortunato's most high-profile role was as public affairs director at the Kansas City Public Library from 2006 to 2015. During his nine-year career, the library said in a statement, Fortunato "revolutionized library programming" and, working with Library Director Crosby Kemper III, helped the library earn local, regional, and national attention.
"Fortunato built the Library’s public programming on the idea that a speaker with the right credentials and right topic could draw a crowd regardless of name recognition," the library's statement added. "That success built upon itself, ultimately leading to many big names visiting the Kansas City Public Library."
Among those luminaries were Hal Holbrook, Dan Rather, Anita Hill, David McCullough and United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
The library hosted a celebration of Fortunato's life in early January. That event, which packed the Truman Forum Auditorium at the Plaza Branch, included speeches from longtime out-of-town friends and current colleagues, as well as musical performances led by his daughter and other members of the Blue Valley North Chorale and Orchestra. The event stretched for more than two hours, followed by a reception with refreshments and wine.
After all, Fortunato said, "can you imagine a library event without wine?"
A meticulous planner, Fortunato had orchestrated the celebration, which he described to the audience as a "pre-funeral funeral," in response to a cancer diagnosis. He said he wanted to hear everyone's praise while he was still around to enjoy it.
"I’m going to get to listen to people say nice things about me before I die rather than, well, I wouldn’t hear it afterwards, probably – we don’t know!" he told the audience, earning laughter. "That’ll be one of those things I report back to you!"
Fortunato was in high spirits that afternoon.
"Let’s face it. I have cancer and it’s stage three and, sooner or later it’s going to win. But right now I’m winning," he said to enthusiastic and lingering applause. "And one of the big reasons I’m winning is because of you. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve had an amazing life. And so many of you are responsible for that and I will always cherish the contributions you made to my life."
But Fortunato had made his own significant contributions to the life of the metro, not just through library programming but through history projects inspired by his lifelong dedication to walking as a primary mode of transportation. Among his lengthy journeys were a 200-mile walk from Kansas City to Wichita and a 500-mile, 39-day walk to the western edge of the state.
An East Coast native, Fortunato described himself as an "accidental Kansan." A former magazine editor, Fortunato moved to the Kansas City area in 1997 for a corporate communications job. He left that position, but stayed to earn a masters degree in American history from the University of Kansas.
Fortunato's most recent work focused on creating what he described as "a contemplative baker's dozen" of interpretative signage along the Indian Creek Trail in Overland Park, Kansas. Each panel features photographs, maps, and stories about streets, such as Metcalf, Nall, or Roe, that cross or intersect the trail.
"I want people to be as entranced by this history as I am," he told the Prairie Village Post.
Fortunato told the Star in 2016 that the idea for the interpretative signs came to him during one of his many Kansas walks.
"When I walk, I think, what happened here? So over time it just came to me that it would be a really interesting way to explore the history of Overland Park and Johnson County by taking this trail. It turns out the derivation of street names is a really compact way to pack in a lot of history," he said.
He had hoped to expand the signs to Leawood, Olathe, and Kansas City.
“Henry Fortunato was an original," Kemper said. "No one who knew him will ever forget him. As much as anyone he created the library’s great public programming. He wasn’t just good, so frequently good, at what he did, he also wanted it to mean something to his adopted home in the heartland. And it did. And it was always interesting, he made sure of that. Very few people live life so fully and so much to the joy of the rest of us.”
A visitation is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. on Friday, February 9 at the InterUrban ArtHouse, 8001 Newton St. in Overland Park, Kansas. A memorial mass is scheduled for Saturday, February 17 in Stirling, New Jersey.
C.J. Janovy is digital content editor for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.