Peter Sortino planned a 100th birthday bash for St. Louis that would go on for days and draw thousands of guests, but his name was largely unknown to most who attended.
EATS Bridge, ’04 Eve and River Splash are the enduring memories that most St. Louisans have of the 1904 World’s Fair centennial celebration. Mr. Sortino was the director of St. Louis 2004, which planned the festivities and, later, the Danforth Foundation, which launched the initiative.
The fun was a minuscule part of the work of St. Louis 2004, which was formed in 1996 to kick-start major regional improvement projects. Mr. Sortino led the effort from 2000 until the organization completed its mission in 2004.
Initially, the project engendered rampant skepticism. But as the centennial dawned, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared that St. Louis 2004 had managed “a string of achievements.”
Among them is Great Rivers Greenway. The recreation district is well on its way to having a labyrinth of 600 miles of interconnected trails and parks traversing 1,200 square miles.
“The biggest single accomplishment and the most difficult was the establishment of the Greenways system,” said former Sen. John C. Danforth, who was the chair of 2004, “and it was all Peter Sortino.”
The challenge was funding. Mr. Sortino succeeded in getting two major sales tax initiatives passed.
In 2000, he led the successful campaign to pass Proposition C, which funded Great Rivers Greenway, the first local bi-state park and recreation district in the country and, in 2012, Proposition P, to fund redevelopment of the grounds of the Gateway Arch.
“Peter Sortino was one of the most consequential and effective persons in our town,” Danforth said.
Mr. Sortino, who had been receiving hospice care for several months, died of pancreatic cancer this morning (March 24, 2017) at his home in Sunset Hills.
He was 62.
The 2004 initiative ended with numerous long-term projects underway, and Mr. Sortino was quickly appointed president of the Danforth Foundation. During his tenure, the foundation helped restore some of the majesty of downtown, including revitalization of the Old Post Office. He led the foundation through its planned dissolution in 2011, when all remaining assets were funneled into the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
Mr. Sortino was twice honored in 2016 for his green efforts. He received the Keeper of the Park award from St. Louis and Forest Park Forever in April, and was named the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Citizen of the Year in November.
Until he received the latter award, many St. Louisans were unaware of Mr. Sortino’s role in the region. That’s because “he was such a humble person and so much behind the scenes,” said Susan Trautman, executive director of Great Rivers Greenway.
Mr. Sortino was the founding chair of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission, another lasting venture that arose out of St. Louis 2004. With the closing of Regional Medical Center, St. Louis’ last remaining public hospital, the commission was formed to help low-income people gain access to health care.
“Peter had a vision of how things should go and a way to get people there,” said Rudy Nickens, who was vice president at St. Louis 2004. “There were no conversations about workforce diversity before St. Louis 2004.”
While leading the Danforth Foundation, Mr. Sortino joined the board of Forest Park Forever, where he helped secure the passage of two bond issues totaling $64 million for capital improvements in Forest Park and 108 other city parks. To sustain Forest Park, he spearheaded a funding partnership between the city and Forest Park Forever, a commitment that spurred an additional $100 million in private donations.
“Peter was instrumental in helping us define our role today and our role in the future,” said Lesley Hoffarth, president and executive director Forest Park Forever. “He had great vision. His compassion for people was inspiring.”
After wrapping up the foundation’s business in 2011, Mr. Sortino was named assistant vice chancellor for special initiatives at Washington University. In 2013, he was inducted into the Missouri Recreation and Parks Hall of Fame for his work on the tax propositions.
Mr. Sortino had gotten a taste of politics in 1974, when he came to St. Louis as an urban planning intern during his senior year at the University of Cincinnati. After sitting in on aldermanic meetings and watching mayoral aides plot political strategy, he was hooked.
Mr. Sortino returned to St. Louis in 1977, and for nearly a decade, he ran interference for two Democratic St. Louis mayors: Vincent C. Schoemehl and Freeman R. Bosley Jr. In between, he was Schoemehl’s director of Operation ConServ, a neighborhood stabilization program.
“He had the ability to work with politicians, the cast of characters, to accomplish important objectives and he just loved the political process,” Danforth said.
Sometimes the process called for his “awesome” humor and, occasionally, bravery.
Mr. Sortino was once enlisted to take a warning to Schoemehl, which briefly sent the mayor and his family into hiding.
The threat was issued by Luther Boykins, the ex-husband of the then-embattled license collector, Billie Boykins.
'''You tell Vince I'm going to be on his front lawn this weekend,''' Mr. Sortino told the Post-Dispatch Luther Boykins said to him. “It wasn't a real comfortable situation.”
Prior to his appointments with the city, Mr. Sortino was a community and economic development consultant and a corporate secretary and senior planner for the Urban Programming Corp.
Peter Gerard Sortino was born June 30, 1954, the middle child of Peter Paul Sortino, a movie theater operator, and Mary Mitrione Sortino, a homemaker. He gained his cooking prowess and his penchant for doing spot-on imitations growing up in a big, extended Italian family in Yonkers, N.Y.
He earned a bachelor of urban from the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. He later attended a senior executive program at Harvard University.
Mr. Sortino’s future wife, Leslie Gillman, was a college classmate. The young couple’s first home was in the Soulard neighborhood, where Mr. Sortino soon became president of the neighborhood restoration group.
They later moved to south St. Louis, where for many years he raised a garden and chickens. Even during the work day, he looked more Lt. Colombo than high-powered executive. After moving to Sunset Hills, the former altar boy returned to the city daily to open the doors of St. Ambrose Church for 6:30 a.m. Mass.
“I just want to be remembered as a humble servant who was fortunate,” Mr. Sortino told a longtime friend, Paul Wagman, shortly before his death.
He was preceded in death by his father and a sister, Elaine Sortino.
In addition to his mother and wife, Leslie Sortino, survivors includea son, Philip Sortino of St. Louis County, and a sister, Paula Celona of Yonkers, N.Y.
Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., Monday, at Kutis Funeral Home, 10151 Gravois Road, Affton. Funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m., Tuesday, at St. Ambrose Church, 5130 Wilson Ave., St. Louis. Interment at Calvary Cemetery, 5239 West Florissant Ave.
Memorials may be made to Great Rivers Greenway District, 6174 Delmar Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63112.