A Tribute to New Bedford’s ‘Tonka Toi’ From His ‘Tonka Tumblers’
It's been a couple of days since the news broke of the passing of Antone Fortes. Most people who live in New Bedford and even the surrounding towns knew him as "Tonka Toi," and he was an absolute legend in the Cape Verdean community.
Sadly, Toi was fighting COVID-19 and unfortunately lost the fight.
We are only five or so weeks into 2021 and there's already been great sadness within the New Bedford community alone. Tonka Toi was more than just a gymnastics and acrobatics teacher; he was a father, a friend and an absolute visionary when it came to the mental health and well being of our community's children.
When Toi started Tonka's Tumblers, a local gymnastics group that performed outdoors, I wonder if he knew how much of a difference he was going to make in not only the city but in the Cape Verdean community as well. He exerted a stern approach to his teachers, but always in a good way. After all, it's just as good as a learning tool for his students.
Tonka Toi left behind his family, his friends, his community, and his group of tumblers who will forever have a piece of Toi in their souls. These are their stories:
"I got into gymnastics around the age of 11 and continued through out my teenage years until Toi had me become a coach, showing me how to be a mentor to the next generation. One thing that I will always remember is Toi instilling in me was 'you're not cheating me, you're cheating yourself.' As I grew up, this stayed with me through life situations and will continue to. He was a coach, a close family friend, and he’ll never be forgotten."
"Toi coached my sister Jaime’s gymnastics team over 20 years ago. When my daughter was three years old and I knew Toi was still coaching, he was my first choice. For $5 a week at the Andrea McCoy Rec Center, he gave every child an opportunity to be coached by the greatest. He brought the love of this sport to the community. He could have five kids or 20 kids in his class and he gave the attention, love, and direction to each child. He coached with love, he never coddled, he respected every child no matter their background. He taught life lessons. For over 50 years this man poured his life into this sport. He was a mentor and a friend. My daughter Cami and I will truly miss him, we couldn’t wait to get back in the gym with him and our Tonka’s Tumblers. His energy was amazing you wouldn’t even know his age, he could run circles around anyone. He loved the CV Parade (Cape Verdean parade) and we were able to take part in it with him as every kid had the chance to tumble with him at the parade. He will be greatly missed. He always said 'It’s never goodbye, it’s see you later.'"
“I think the most precious moment was watching my sad/disappointed child or grandkid smile because Toi made them feel like they did fantastic even when they messed up. Watching him work with Cayden knowing he had autism and treating him like any other kid."
"This quote sticks with me every time I feel nervous or scared. I remember this every time I hit the track now that I play roller derby. He used to tell me, 'When your heart beats fast, your legs shake and your knees start to knock, that's your soul cheering you on! That's not fear! Now go!'"
"Toi was the love of my life. I had the pleasure of working with his mom who always told me I needed to meet him. After her passing, I met him and fell in love. He taught my two youngest how to tumble and we have spent many wonderful years together. My heart is empty without him, but I feel his presence all around me."
Nicole Fortes-Williams, Toi's Daughter:
"My father taught his class in Washington Square and had 'exhibitions' whenever given the opportunity. If an event was going on, we would go to the event do the show there and at the end of the summer, he would plan a big 'Tonka's Tumblers' event that was such a great time. Can't believe it's already been five years since his '50 years of flight' achievement. He used to charge a dollar to the kids to teach them and if they didn't have it, he still let them participate. He was tough, but a father figure for so many of these kids in the South End, that's why there's this weeping heart for him right now. He filled a void in the lives of the local kids. They got love, but they also got discipline, and was taught hard work effort."
When asked if she ever had intentions of taking over his leadership role:
"I did have that thought in my mind and it wasn't that he forced me to take over; instead, he encouraged me to connect with the community and with people to show them that we are there for them in the community. So there was no pressure to take over the team, but more along the lines to fill his shoes and of so many others. Lastly, I can't forget my step-sister Kriste Burgo who was right by my side the entire time cleaning and lugging mats and dealing with our dad and his entourage. She was just as apart of this team as the rest of us."
Well, Tonka Toi, it appears that the same exact love that you gave your students, family and community is being returned back your way. Your presence is all around us and your legend will forever continue on within the hearts of all who had the honor to meet you, even if it was a simple "hello."
It's never goodbye, Toi, but I do suppose it would only be right for us to "take a lap" one last time, just as you would want it.