City of Tomorrow,” an exhibit at the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown (Central Library) branch through Sept. 1, spotlights the post-World War II urban renewal crusade.
The renewal gospel hinged on a new network of highways, and visionaries prophesied that everybody soon would be driving everywhere they went. Walkable neighborhoods? Who needs them?!!!
The visionaries hit the mark with some of their predictions, but they did not foresee the path of future visionary Henry Fortunato, whose love of walking epitomized his trailblazing life.
“Henry walked a lot,” said Nicole Emanuel, founder and artistic director of the InterUrban ArtHouse in downtown Overland Park. “If you ever saw him walking down the road, you would think to yourself, ‘What is he looking at that I’m not seeing driving down the road?’”
Fortunato, 62 years young, died Feb. 5 of lung cancer. His talents, passions and determination opened new horizons for countless beneficiaries.
A native of Wantagh, New York, Fortunato graduated from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and took the helm as editor in chief of “Regardie’s” magazine, which blazed new trails in business journalism.
Fortunato continued his trailblazing ways as public affairs director of the Kansas City Public Library from 2006 to 2015. While there he earned the admiration of people such as Paul Wenske, former senior community affairs adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Wenske said Fortunato was crucial to the success of the Kansas City Fed’s annual Money Smart Day, which is held at the Central Library. The event features educational sessions on topics such as home financing, understanding credit and avoiding financial traps.
“He was a bundle of energy,” Wenske recalled. “We used the whole library. He handled the logistics and found us classrooms, rooms for one-on-one training, audio-visual equipment. He set up refreshments. It seemed like it was fun for him; he got really excited about it. Something that challenged him excited him, and he made it work.”
Fortunato spread his energy and enthusiasm far and wide. Joanne Collins, a former Kansas City councilwoman, said he would introduce homeless individuals in the vicinity of the Central Library to the world of art. “He took the time to give them a personal tour and would integrate them into various programs. It was inclusive. It was loving. That was Henry’s mentality.”
Collins said she expressed good-natured skepticism when she learned of Fortunato’s plan to take a 500-mile walk across Kansas in 2014. He responded to her ribbing by assuring her that “Yes, Collins, I can do this.”
While pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Kansas, Fortunato partnered with the KU Memorial Union to create the KU History Project. He formed a team of graduate students, faculty reviewers, designers and web developers to produce original online content at kuhistory.com.
Fortunato served as a trustee with Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area and as a board member of the Arts and Recreation Foundation of Overland Park. He founded Sunflower Republic LLC, through which he developed a series of panels along a 10-mile stretch of Indian Creek Trail that link the history of Johnson County to events of national and international significance.
In a June 4, 2016 news release, Fortunato said the Overland Park segment of Indian Creek Trail was “about to be transformed from a walk through Anywhere, USA into a hike through history. Focusing on the history of specific streets — how they got their names, what they looked like before suburbanization, what took place along their routes — offers an ideal spine on which to hang a host of historical vignettes in an accessible format. When completed, this collection of exhibit panels will foster a sense of place and a deeper understanding of how Overland Park and Johnson County came to be and what they are today.”
Fortunato’s Sunflower Republic LLC was housed at the InterUrban ArtHouse, which hosted his visitation gathering on Feb. 9.
“He brought a lot of professionalism to this studio,” said Angi Hejduk, InterUrban ArtHouse CEO. “He had an incredible sense of place.”
Hejduk said Fortunato’s historical research made area artists aware that they inhabited a “culturally rich” locale, and not just a “simple suburban community without much history. He brought a whole new energy and life to the ArtHouse.”
I will ponder the trails blazed by Henry Fortunato when I go on future walks and drives, and I will remember what Emanuel told me at the visitation:
“He reminded everybody by his walking how important it was to really see where you are and where you’re going and where you’ve been.”
Above: Henry Fortunato in 2017, with one of the series of Johnson County history panels he developed along Indian Creek Trail. Photo by Susan McSpadden.