Antone T. Fortes loved his blue Chevy Silverado truck.
“That was like his baby,” said Jacqueline Fortes Pina, his sister. “Every time he’d be driving down the street, he’d be honking at people, saying hello to them, giving them a wisecrack or making some gesture to let them know he saw them.”
That scene captures well the outgoing personality of “Tonka Toi,” who was active in Greater New Bedford as a youth gymnastics trainer, coach and mentor for several decades.
“He loved the kids; he just loved the kids,” Pina said. “Not being able to interact with the kids because of COVID, that took a toll on him.”
Fortes contracted the novel coronavirus at the beginning of this year. He was hospitalized on Jan. 4, and never returned home. Fortes died from COVID-19 on Feb. 2. He was 73.
“He wavered up and down,” Pina said, adding that her brother was healthy and often did some of the gymnastics and tumbling himself, which kept him “a young 73.”
“It’s still so hard to believe,” she said. “A lot of people just can’t even believe it.”
Born and raised in New Bedford’s South End, he was one of five children born to the late Theophilo M. and Archangela M. “Canja” (Santos) Fortes. He was around 15 when he got into gymnastics and tumbling as an original member of the House of Champions. The group, trained by the late Manuel E. Costa Sr., performed on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
After serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era, Fortes trained and mentored area youth with Tonka’s Tumblers and Gymnasts for more than 50 years. He was a longtime gymnastics coach at Somerset High School, and also taught gymnastics at the Y.M.C.A. and the Boys and Girls Club of New Bedford.
“He taught kids to respect themselves, their parents and their elders,” Pina said. “He encouraged them and made them feel good about themselves.”
Fortes was still going strong after having retired about five years ago from his job as a park supervisor for the Massachusetts Department of Natural Resources at Myles Standish State Forest. A talented musician who could play guitar and keyboard, he still enjoyed playing with area bands at AHA! Nights in New Bedford.
More than 300 people attended his funeral service earlier this year.
“There were a couple of kids who went to the service. There was this one little boy. He just about broke my heart. He was so sad,” Pina said. “That’s what I’m sad about too. These kids will never get another Toi.”
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