Natchez athlete, legend Fortunato died Monday night, remembered by friends

Published 1:15 am Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Standing more than 6-feet tall, Joe Fortunato was big. To those who knew him, his heart was even bigger.

Fortunato — a legacy in local athletics and business operations — died Monday in Natchez at the age of 87, but will live on thanks to his ever-present kind nature, friends said.

“He helped raised thousands and thousands of dollars for student-athletes,” Tony Byrne said. “He wasn’t just a heck of an athlete, he was heck of man.”

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Serving as mayor of Natchez from 1968 to 1988, Byrne became friends with Fortunato through his love of Mississippi State University where they both went to school.

Fortunato played at MSU as a linebacker and fullback from 1950 to 1952.

“It had nothing to do with me being in the mayor’s office or him being an athlete. We were just friends,” Byrne said. “He was loyal, and he cared about friendships. I love when we played softball together and against each other in the city league when he would come home from Mississippi State.”

A first-team All-American and a member of the first-team All Southeastern Conference, Fortunato was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1952. He went on to play in 155 games from 1955 to 1966, winning an NFL Championship in 1963.

Fortunato played in five NFL Pro Bowls and was a three-time All-Pro selection.

From his hometown of Mingo Junction, Ohio, Fortunato was known to give back, often times with little recognition.

After his time in the NFL, Fortunato established three scholarship funds — one at his high school, one at Mississippi State and one in Natchez through the local chapter of the National Football Foundation.

The College Hall of Fame Scholarship Fund gives more than $10,000 to local student-athletes every year. The scholarship is funded by donations and the longtime Joe-Fortunato-Allen Brown Golf Classic.

“He was instrumental in beginning the foundation in Natchez,” Terry Estes president of the foundation from 2008 to 2009 said. “It is the way it is because of him and others like my dad. His office did everything. He was always there, and he meant a lot to this area.

“The scholarship has really just grown. It started with just a few hundred dollars each year. He just wanted to help people. That’s just the way he was.”

Fortunato was also known in the area for his dedication to his oil business, Big Joe Oil Company that he started with his partner Noland Biglane in the late 1960s.

“There are so many memories with them together,” Noland’s daughter Nancy Biglane Kuehnle said. “They were like an old married couple. They would get mad, and then they would be fine.

“Joe was a great guy and a very kind man. He would do anything for anybody.”

Freddie Biglane, the oldest son of eight Biglane children, said Joe was like a father to them, as well.

“He always had a smile on his face,” Freddie Biglane said. “His hands were big and they would squeeze you real tight. My dad and him were two characters and worked well together. They knew how to control the other one.”

Fortunato’s wife, Catherine, said she will also cherish his gentle soul.

“He was a very good man,” she said. “He had a hell of a career. He will be dearly missed.”

Services for Fortunato are scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Mary Basilica in Natchez with visitation from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday and 10 a.m. until service time also at the church.