This post was originally published on Sacramento Observer
By Genoa Barrow
With a charter school system already bearing his name and a local elementary school set to follow suit this fall, a local education trailblazer had the good fortune to have received his proverbial flowers while he could appreciate them.
Pioneering school superintendent Dr. Rex Fortune passed away on January 29, just four days after his 81st birthday. Condolences have flooded in from across the country. On the school system’s Facebook page, Dr. Fortune was called a “giant among giants” whose “work lives on through the countless educators that he mentored.”
All the messages have brought comfort to the family, but it was those that came from the littlest Fortune students that choked up Dr. Margaret Fortune, who visited one of the Fortune School campuses two days after her father’s death. “The kids said ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ and hugged my legs,” she said, lovingly mimicking their tiny voices.
Dr. Rex Fortune was more than a name on the wall. He was a tireless supporter of the charter school system and the students it served.
“He would come to games and band performances and pop into the schools and visit classrooms and talk to principals,” Dr. Fortune said of her father. “He knew them all by name and would ask them the specifics. He kept up with what was going on and cared about the kids and the kids learned who he is.”
Dr. Rex Fortune was born in New Bern, North Carolina on January 25, 1942. He met the love of his life, Margaret, while in college. The two, students at neighboring HBCUs, met on a blind date; he was a student at North Carolina A&T and she at Bennett Women’s College. They were student leaders on their respective campuses and activists in the wider community, fighting to integrate lunch counters and see education equality become a reality for all.
Mrs. Fortune, also an educator, served as director of the Fortune School of Education when it was called Project Pipeline. The teacher credentialing program still works to increase the number of teachers of color entering the education workforce.
“Education was something that we talked deeply about at the kitchen table,” Dr. Margaret Fortune said. “He was very caring as a father; he encouraged us and pushed us to be our best and he was also fun.”
Outside his education-related work, Dr. Rex Fortune was an avid reader and history buff. He was also a cyclist and up until recently, rode his bicycle along the American River Trail as much as 25 miles, several times a week.
Dr. Fortune was a proud member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. In addition to graduating from North Carolina A&T, he also held a master’s degree in education at UC Berkeley and a doctorate from Stanford University.
Dr. Fortune co-founded the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators (CAASA) and served on the board of the Pacific Charter Institute until last week.
“Dr. Rex Fortune has left a legacy of unapologetic advocacy and support for all students, particularly those that have been underserved by schools and school districts historically,” said former CAASA president Dr. Ramona E. Bishop. “As we worked to rejuvenate the organization, I had an opportunity to meet him and from then on he was a trusted adviser as I ascended to the level of superintendent. I am sure my story is not unique as he was a mentor and friend to all of us. He will be missed.”
Dr. Fortune’s own credentials included teaching high school, being a school site administrator, serving as Associate Superintendent of Public Instruction with the California State Department of Education, Superintendent of the Inglewood Unified School District and Superintendent of Center Unified School District. He “retired” in 2003.
Dr. Fortune was also the CEO and president of Fortune & Associates, through which he and his son, Rex Fortune III wrote several books and produced videos aimed at helping educators and parents close the academic achievement gap. Their books included “Bridging the Achievement Gap” and “Leadership on Purpose: Promising Practices for African American and Hispanic Students.” He released his latest book, “African American History Presentation: Video Lesson Plan” in March 2022.
In recent years, the elder Fortunes aided in the charter school’s efforts to register area families to vote. Mrs. Fortune is also a part of the Black In Schools Coalition working to get Black students included as a part of the local control funding formula for public schools. That was her husband’s idea.
“He went to Shirley Weber with that idea years before she actually ran the bill,” his daughter shared. “He was the one that figured out that you could constitutionally describe Black students, not by their race, but by their academic performance, because they’re the lowest performing subgroup that’s not already getting state funding and the children not recognized as high need students even though they’re, they’re the most in need.”
Dr. Rex Fortune’s life and legacy will be celebrated with a private family service followed by a public celebration of his life this spring. The event will be held at the Rex and Margaret Fortune Education Complex in Elk Grove. The Fortune School band, led by school parent and former Sly & The Family Stone musician Stefon DuBose, will perform at the public memorial service. Dr. Fortune’s lifelong love of HBCU-style marching bands is immortalized in a 2021 children’s book written by his oldest daughter, Gwen Fortune-Blakely.
The honors continue in August, as Rex Fortune Elementary School opens in the Center Joint Unified School District. Dr. Fortune participated in the groundbreaking last year. His family is glad he got to experience it and see some progress with his vision for better education outcomes in his lifetime.
“I’m glad he got to see the incredible expansion of Fortune School of Education. From serving nearly 70 school districts throughout the state of California to credentialing educators and also a whole public school system dedicated to closing the Black achievement gap,” Dr. Margaret Fortune said. “He’s got 2,200 kids throughout Sacramento and San Bernardino with his name on their chests,” she said of school uniforms. “I’m proud that he saw that and participated in it in its fullness.”
As an HBCU alum, the elder Dr. Fortune was also fully invested in seeing his daughter work to bring such a campus to the West Coast.
“He was able to see us reach the milestone of being recognized by the Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education as a degree-granting institution,” she said. “He kept up with everything, was active, acknowledged what had happened from his original dream and lived a full life and was appreciative of the life he led.”
Dr. Fortune is survived by his wife, Margaret S. Fortune; their three children Gwendolyn Fortune-Blakely, Rex Fortune III and Dr. Margaret Fortune; his brother Dr. Ron Fortune; and two grandchildren, Lenora and Evan Blakely.
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