"I was a little girl and it was my birthday," Fortunato-Gehan recalls. "I told my Dad that all I wanted for my birthday that year was a big hamburger. Well, he made me the biggest hamburger ever. It was the size of the entire grill. And he had the bun custom made. I'll never forget that he went out of the way to do that for me."
Fortunato-Gehan wasn't alone. "Smokey" Fortunato went out of his way to help many people, especially those in his hometown of North Bergen.
Fortunato, a former township police officer and a former member of the township's Board of Commissioners, died in his North Bergen home last week. He was 83 years old and had lived his entire life in the same residence on 43rd Street.
Fortunato was a police officer, commissioner, and one of North Bergen's biggest advocates for veterans' affairs.
Fortunato was a World War II veteran, and had served with the 965th Artillery Infantry Division in the famed "Battle of the Bulge" in Belgium in 1945 and also in the Normandy invasion.
'It was hell'
"We were sent there, and within 24 hours, two entire regimens were wiped out," Fortunato recalled in a 2002 interview, when he was named the grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade in North Bergen. "You see all these movies and pictures about the Battle of the Bulge, and unless you were there, you have no idea. There was snow, fog. It was hell. The one movie with Henry Fonda I particularly hated, because they make it seem like he won the battle by himself. There was nothing about the guys in the trenches."
Fortunato took a great amount of pride in being a veteran.
"I've been flying the American flag outside my house since the day I returned home," Fortunato said in 2002. "I rebuilt my home and purposely put the flagpole there."
Fortunato was also an elected official from 1979 through 1985, serving as the commissioner of Public Safety and the commissioner of Public Works during his terms in office.
Man of service
Fortunato's son-in-law, Kyle Gehan, delivered the eulogy.
"Nick was a man of service, to his country, his town, and, above all, his family," Gehan said. "He enjoyed life and seemed to get the most when he could help others, whether delivering a baby, getting friends or family out of hot water, or just making a hardened nurse smile. To him, they were all important."
Gehan said he loved hearing his father-in-law's stories.
"Every day he'd pull out another story and surprise me," Gehan said.
Fortunato was also member of the North Bergen American Legion Post 33 and a member of the Veterans of Foreign War Post 2645 for many years.
Fortunato retired from the North Bergen Police Department in 1979, after serving 29 years on the force, then began his career as a public servant until he retired a few years ago.
Returned after retirement
Since his retirement, Fortunato was able to go back to Belgium twice and visit the scene of the historic battle.
He went back for the 50th anniversary 11 years ago, then returned again a few years later.
"They treated us like kings there," Fortunato once said. "I saw a tank trap, with the teeth still in the air, just the way it was 50 years ago. But I made friends with people there and we went back and forth. I lost a lot of friends in battle there, too many to count."
Fortunato-Gehan recalled the pride her father had in being an Army veteran.
"It's what he talked about the most, being a veteran," she said. "It was all about the red, white, and blue. He proudly wore a hat with numbers on it and each number had a story. The hat was so special to him that we left it with him."
Mary Fortunato, "Smokey's" wife of 56 years, recalled her husband.
"I lost my best buddy," Mary Fortunato said. "What can I say? I was very proud of everything he did. He was one in a million and more."
Fortunato never knew how he acquired his nickname.
"I've been Smokey since I was a kid," Fortunato once said. "I don't know how I got the name. Maybe because I had a smoky complexion, I don't know."
Fortunato is also survived by his daughter Donna, his sister Angie, and grandchildren Nicole and Arianna.
"Nick was a man of service, to his country, his town, and, above all, his family." - Kyle Gehan