‘An unbelievable legacy.’ Revered University of Kentucky law professor dies at 83.

Retired University of Kentucky law professor William H. “Bill” Fortune, an academic who also devoted himself to public service, died on Monday, Jan. 29, his family confirmed. He was 83.

Fortune taught criminal law at his alma mater, the UK J. David Rosenberg College of Law, for 43 years. He focused on criminal procedure and ethics, and he took occasional leaves from his teaching duties to work as a public defender.

“He’s going to leave an unbelievable legacy,” said Robert G. Lawson, professor emeritus and a former dean of the UK College of Law, who attended law school with Fortune and later worked with him there. “He spent his whole life trying to help people.”

During his long career at UK, Fortune held various leadership positions, including stints as chairman of the University Senate, associate dean of the law school and academic ombudsman, according to his biography on the law school website.

After he retired from the university in 2012, he continued to teach.

“It was a good fit for me,” Fortune said of teaching in a 2019 interview with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at UK.

Paul Salamanca, the Wendell H. Ford Professor of Law at UK, said Fortune subscribed to a “problem-based approach” to teaching students that helped them think about real-world applications of what they were learning.

“He wanted the students to be able to practice law when they went outside of this building,” he said. “He was interested in methods of teaching that would reach them.”

Throughout his career, Fortune took on pro bono cases, and he took leave from the university three times to work as a public defender, according to his online biography. He served in the federal courts in Los Angeles and in Lexington for several years in the 1970s, and from 1992 to 1993, he worked in the state court system in Pikeville.

“Bill was in some ways an unconventional academic,” Salamanca said. “He liked being a lawyer, as well as a professor.”

Fortune also had an interest in the judiciary. Among his several books on the legal system were two about the federal courts in Kentucky: “On the Bench,” a history of the judges who sat in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Kentucky, and “Call Me Mac,” a biography of U.S. District Judge Mac Swinford, an appointee of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Fortune was active in the Fayette County Bar Association, as well as the Kentucky Bar Association.

“He has served the KBA like very few lawyers have ever done, as (1) a drafter of the state’s Evidence Rules, (2) a member of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct Committee, (3) as counsel for the Ethics Committee of the Kentucky Judiciary, (4) as the author of numerous books and articles on professional responsibility, and (5) through more presentations on continuing legal education that perhaps any other lawyer of Kentucky has ever made,” Fortune’s bio as part of the UK Law Alumni Association Hall of Fame states.

“He was always doing one thing or another for the bar,” Salamanca said. “All the attorneys thought the world of him.”

Lawson said he and Fortune led a task force that prepared the state to adopt laws regarding rules of evidence.

“We worked with legislators, judges and lawyers,” Lawson said.

And more than three decades later, he said, those laws are still in effect.

After a grand jury failed to issue any indictments in the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire that left 165 people dead, Lawson said he and Fortune were tapped to help Lexington attorney Cecil Dunn investigate and issue a report on whether the case should be presented to a grand jury a second time, which they did not recommend.

Lawson said Fortune was “the easiest person you’ve ever known” to work with.

“He had no enemies, just highly respected by everybody,” Lawson said. “Everybody has high regard for Bill Fortune.”

Fortune’s longtime friend and fellow bicyclist Tom Eblen, a former Lexington Herald-Leader columnist and managing editor, said he first met Fortune through his wife, Beverly Fortune, who at the time was a reporter for the Herald-Leader.

“The main thing about Bill is, he was just interested in people. He loved doing good things for people,” Eblen said. “Bill is one of the most kindhearted people I know.”

Fortune was involved in mission work through Second Presbyterian Church, and he drove for Meals on Wheels and ITNBluegrass, which provides rides for senior citizens and people with vision impairments, Eblen said.

Fortune was a native of Lexington who majored in history at UK, then went on to law school there.

He spent five years in private practice before joining the university staff in 1969.

Fortune had deep roots in Lexington, since his father had been a prominent physician and his grandfather a minister here, Salamanca said, but he took an active interest in helping Salamanca and others new to Lexington become a part of the community.

“He wasn’t at all stingy or ungenerous with his resources,” he said. “Bill would do what he thought was helpful to make people feel comfortable in this community.”

When Salamanca moved to Lexington in 1995, he said “Bill was one of the first people who reached out to me way back then to sort of make me feel welcome.”

He remembered Fortune organizing hikes and biking trips so Salamanca could meet other faculty and community members.

He said he was a “gracious, friendly, gregarious, kind person” who “cared about his city, and he cared about his state and his country.”

Fortune led an active lifestyle.

Eblen said he exercised at the High Street YMCA and was a runner who had been part of the Todds Road Stumblers before he became an avid bicyclist. He was active in the Bluegrass Cycling Club.

At 68, he spent nine weeks riding across the country, from Seattle to Portland, Maine.

“When he was 68, he was in better shape than most 35-year-olds,” Eblen said.

Eblen and Fortune shared a love of bicycling and together rode thousands of miles.

“He wasn’t a racing type rider. He just liked to go out and explore the countryside,” Eblen said. “He just really got a lot of pleasure out of riding.”

“You see the country in a different way when you’re on a bicycle,” Fortune told Eblen in a 2008 column about that cross country trip. “If you made the trip in a car, you couldn’t see it as slowly and intensely as we saw it.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.

Bill Fortune volunteered as a doorman as the Kentucky Theatre hosted an October party to celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2012.

Bill Fortune volunteered as a doorman as the Kentucky Theatre hosted an October party to celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2012.

Herald-Leader reporter John Cheves contributed to this story.

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