John Fortney begins his dream job at Van-Far
By Barry Dalton
VANDALIA—It’s been a long hike in many ways, but John Fortney has finally landed his dream job as the new superintendent of schools for the Van-Far R-I School District.
“I’ve done other stuff but nothing fires me up like being in a school working with kids,” Fortney said.
Fortney began leading the Van-Far School District on July 1, after spending the last six years as a school administrator—including the last two as the high school principal in Monroe City.
“The Van-Far School District and the Monroe City School District,” he said, have “a lot of big similarities. Heavy agriculture, strong family values, school is very important, athletic traditions—so there are a lot of high expectations in both places.”
Fortney noted that he’s comfortable with high expectations and that Van-Far feels “very homey” for him. His life experiences have forged his belief that a focus on building relationships, love and community will continue to propel the district forward in positive ways.
“For me, the big thing is the emotional connection between people, the relationship part. I can teach a teacher about the mechanics, the science of being a teacher, but the art of having an emotional connection to people, that’s the thing we’re going to focus on. That’s going to be our driving force.”
‘Hut, Hut, Hike!’
Before finding his calling in education, Fortney did environmental sales and archaeological work for construction companies. He even had a short stint as a professional football coach, spending one year as a line coach and special teams coordinator for the St. Charles River City Renegades of the National Indoor Football League, which operated from 2001 to 2008.
“It was a bus league,” Fortney muses with a wry smile. “So we drove 23 hours on a bus to lose 39-37 in Bismarck, N.D. We would leave at 10 p.m. and drive overnight to Weeland, W.Va.., and stay at a Knight’s End for six hours to sleep and then go play a game. I mean it was pro football, but in the end, all I wound up with was the team owing me money and a football with a NIFL logo on it.”
He says he got into education 18 years ago through a transition to teaching project, and it was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“I love kids,” Fortney said. “I really, really do. As a high school principal I did the announcements at Monroe and told the kids every day that if no one tells you today that they love you, that I do. Every kid that I’ve worked with my whole educational career, I’ve used the term love because they deserve it.”
Fortney lives in Vandalia during the week. He is married to a high school administrator in Union, Mo., Cheri Fortney, where they spend time with their kids, Caroline and Joe, and two grandchildren, Skyler and Elijah, on five acres of land. When they’re not working, they enjoy backpacking, hiking and sleeping overnight in large hammocks. He says he prefers to sleep in a hammock rather than a tent because, he said joking, that he’s “not a ground slug,” rather, he’s a “tree hugger … but not in the hippie sense,” he added with a laugh, “although I do like trees.”
In his first letter to the district, he noted that he and he and his wife may be in the Smoky Mountains one weekend and the Badlands of South Dakota the next.
“We are teaching our grand kids to love the outdoors and to find comfort in nature,” he wrote.
Overlanding is their next adventure, he said, which is a form of cross country travel that can include anything from car camping to remodeling jeeps, vans and sports utility vehicles into off-road vehicles and campers.
“We’ve ordered one from Twin Falls, Idaho, where they take older Chevrolet Suburbans and convert them into over-landing vehicles,” Fortney said. “We’re picking it up in May of 2021, and the bucket list is going to be Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, a 10-day, 4,000 mile tour.”
In addition to arena football, Fortney has coached track and field, particularly throwing events, in high school and college, but he said he’s going to leave the sports to his staff as he focuses on leading the district.
“This is also a learning and growing opportunity for me,” Fortney said. “Every day is exciting. I get up everyday saying I get to go to work, not I have to go to work.”
Fortney has an anthropology degree from Hamilton College, a master’s degree in sports psychology from California University of Pennsylvania and a graduate certificate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He credits his parents for raising him to value education.
“Nothing ever got created without something being taught,” he said. “I was blessed. We moved a lot when I was a kid because my dad was in the manufacturing business but if the schools sucked, he’d move. My parents did ‘some college’ and are very well read and intelligent, so to them education was important. As I hear my dad’s voice in my head, right now, he’s saying, ‘People can take a lot of things away from you, but they can’t take away your education.’”