There are lots of ways to live a good life: family, community, success in business, friends, eating and drinking well, enjoying the world around you, reading a good book, giving something to others, or howling at the moon. My friend Henry Fortunato, who died Monday, did all those things.
But Henry just had to be special. So he did them with panache, with imagination, in front of large crowds at the Kansas City Public Library where he was the longtime director of public affairs, on lonesome roads in western Kansas, and traveling to exotic places with Eileen, the love of his life, and their three adored children, Xan, Peter and Tory.
He saw life as an education (for the rest of us) in the ways and wonderment of the Fortunato magic. Our programs at the library — the Henry-inspired Meet the Past programs, the Henry-molded Script-in-Hand series, the scholars and politicos, the civic leaders and entrepreneurs, the artists and musicians — were presented with brio. He gave star quality to our notion of lifelong learning, but did so without sacrificing civilization-enhancing values.
Henry spent months cajoling Hal Holbrook’s agent to bring the actor to Kansas City for a conversation about his autobiography, because Henry knew the start of Holbrook’s career doing Shakespeare in Midwest high school auditoriums was just the kind of moment straight out of the 19th-century Chautauqua educational movement that would make it memorable and aspirational.
Many great names came to the library in his tenure: Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Sandra Day O’Connor, news anchor Dan Rather, writer Sandra Cisneros, historian John Hope Franklin, professor Anita Hill, poet laureate Donald Hall.
But probably our favorite was the phone call from David McCullough’s agent telling us David had asked if he could end his book tour for “The Wright Brothers” at the library. For, you see, all of the McCullough family dogs were named Fortunato, and Henry had once cajoled David and me into taking our picture in front of McCullough’s Truman biography — the heroic book spine on the library garage — 40 feet in the air on the open side of a forklift.
Henry was a proud easterner — Long Island, New York City, Washington, D.C. — where he made a remarkable splash as the nation’s youngest, brashest editor of Regardie’s magazine. Not long after he alighted in the Kansas City area he found that first his children, and then he himself, had become true Kansans.
His walking was prodigious, Homeric (he claimed never to have had a driver’s license), and his cadged rides across the metro more so.
But his hikes across Kansas became legendary. Along with his love of Kansas history and landscape. More than once he compared experiences among the natives — including not a few bartenders and highway patrolmen — with historian William Least-Heat Moon.
Typically and inescapably the showman to the end, Henry organized his own “pre-funeral funeral” as he called it at the Plaza Branch Library, with reminiscences from famed traveler Rudy Maxa, White House correspondent Carl Cannon, who knew him at the beginning of his career, and columnist-historian David Von Drehle, who knew him at the end. They all became, under his insistent cajoling, regulars at the library.
Henry wasn’t easy, but he was always interesting, and in the telling of it, he became nearly legendary to those of us who knew him well.
As the editor says to the cub reporter at the end of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (a favorite between us): “When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend.”
Henry Fortunato is now walking through heaven — which is a lot like Kansas: Ad astra per aspera.
R. Crosby Kemper III is chief executive of the Kansas City Public Library.