Local historian Henry Fortunato, who spearheaded Indian Creek Trail signage project, dies at 62

Henry Fortunato in his office at the InterUrban Art House in downtown Overland Park in May 2017.

Henry Fortunato, whose love of local history and dedication to preserving it have transformed the Indian Creek Trail in Johnson County, died Monday at the age of 62.

Fortunato on the trail. Photo courtesy of Ann Dean Photo.

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Fortunato graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and served as a magazine editor there before coming to Kansas in 1997 for a job in corporate communications. The job didn’t work out, and in the months after he left it, he found himself walking along the Indian Creek Trail near his home pondering what he would do next.

During one of those walks, he told the Shawnee Mission Post, a “light bulb went on” and he decided he wanted to pursue a master’s degree in American history at the University of Kansas. He was 42 at the time.

“I got hooked on Kansas as a really interesting place. I fell in love with Kansas,” he said. “I have this vision of Kansas being a place where people can go for great walks.”

In the years that followed, he became a prominent figure in Kansas City civic life, leading the revitalization of the Kansas City Public Library’s public events and programming as its director of public affairs from 2006 to 2015.

But his love with Kansas history never waned. Through his continued work with KU’s history department, he sparked a project to create detailed interpretive signage along prominent trails in eastern Kansas. Last year, his project unveiled seven new interpretive signs along the Indian Creek Trail in Johnson County, telling the stories behind familiar street names like Nall, Lamar, Pflumm and Quivira.

He had been diagnosed with cancer and knew he faced a daunting prognosis. In early January, hundreds of people gathered at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Library for what Fortunato called a “pre-funeral funeral,” a festive celebration that saw notable folks from Kansas City and beyond pay tribute to his contributions.

There will be a visitation from 5 to 8 p.m. this Friday at the InterUrban ArtHouse, 8001 Newton St., in downtown Overland Park, where Forunato kept his office.