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Bill Fortune – An Appreciation
By Jamie Kempton
Bill Fortune did not take up running until he was 51 years old, but he quickly made up for lost time and established himself as the Rockland Road Runners’ most accomplished masters runner by far. He ascended rapidly to national prominence in track and road-running events ranging from 800 meters to the marathon. In his 60s, he set five national age-group records and posted personal-best times faster than runners half his age, including amazing mile times of 5:23 at age 64 and 6:07 at age 70. Bill won numerous national age-group championships in his 25-year racing career and also won international acclaim for his performances in the 1,500 meters, 5K and 10K.
Growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, Bill swam and played baseball and handball. After serving in the Korean War, he joined the New York Police Department and rose to the rank of Deputy Inspector before retiring in 1987. Eight years earlier, Bill was persuaded by fellow officers to enter the annual five-mile run for New York City police and firefighters. He clocked a very respectable 35:54, finished ninth in his age group, “and I found out, hey, I’m not too bad at this,” he told The Journal-News in 1989. “That was when I really got the competitive itch.”
Before long, Bill became a regular at New York Road Runners Club races, sporting his familiar white headband and cutting a lean greyhound look at 5-foot-9 ½ and 140 pounds. If you didn’t know any better you’d swear he was smiling as he dashed past you with that choppy, tilted shuffle stride of his. But that smile belied the steely determination and intensity that typified Bill’s approach to every one of the hundreds of races he contested in a quarter-century of excellence.
Bill would go on to achieve outstanding personal-best times of 3:03:34 for the marathon, at age 52 (he ran 11 marathons overall); 17:52 for 5K, his best event, at age 53; and 36:06 for 10K, also at age 52. Bill traveled the world to pursue his passion, frequently accompanied by his good friend and Millrose AA teammate, John McManus, and his record-breaking success earned him numerous prestigious awards.
A 40-year Pearl River resident, Bill could often be seen chugging around the Pearl River High School track during speedwork sessions, which he referred to as his “homework.” Bill was once quoted as saying, “There are no successes in running if you don’t do your homework.” Another aspect of that “homework” was the daily morning five-mile runs at Rockland Lake that Bill would enjoy with fellow RRR members. In later years he was a coaching mainstay at the club’s summer track workouts, which were renamed in his memory in 2011. That same year saw the debut of the inaugural Bill Fortune Memorial 10K & 5K Run, a club-sponsored race at Rockland Lake that replaced another club race, the Marisa Fund 10K, in the late-May time slot.
Bill was a nature and gardening aficionado whose kitchen table brimmed with fresh-cut flowers from his garden. He also was an avid reader of novels and books of poetry, and enjoyed summer swims at the Nauraushaun Swim Club in Pearl River. Bill maintained his trademark positive attitude through his struggle with rapid onset dementia, triggered by a fatal neurological brain disease.
Such was his impact that more than 200 family, friends and colleagues attended a memorial service celebrating his life, held in Nanuet shortly after his passing in June 2010. Among those in attendance were his children Christine, Susan, Mary, Laura and Bill Jr. – to whom he was an inspiration – his older brother John, and numerous grandchildren.
Bill redefined the limits of competitive running for older athletes and took great pride in his vigorous good health, serving as a role model for senior athletes of all stripes. His self-effacing and genial disposition endeared him to everyone, and his contributions to the Rockland running community were meaningful and enduring.
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