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Hannah Hayes — South Side Writer, Organizer, Educator — Killed In Hit-And-Run: ‘Everything She Touched Was At Least A Little Bit Better’

"Regular people — normal people who are good critical thinkers like Hannah — can make a difference," said Jesse Sinaiko, Hayes' partner for nearly three decades.

Left: Hannah Hayes. Right: Hayes and Joy Clendenning pose for a picture with a sign reading "South Side Parents Support Blaine" in April 2016, after Chicago Public Schools ousted Troy LaRaviere as Blaine Elementary School's principal. Hayes was a longtime education activist and public schools advocate.
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KENWOOD — The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Harold Washington’s historic mayoral campaign. Pay inequality for women lawyers. The lack of a library in her neighborhood’s elementary school.

Hannah Hayes was more than a witness to the pressing social issues of her time, whether those issues impacted millions or dozens; whether they were international or hyperlocal.

She was willing to act on them, employing her communication, writing and organizing skills to better the world in whatever ways she could, said Jesse Sinaiko, her husband of 14 years and partner for 29.

Hayes believed “with some things, there needed to be big systemic changes — almost a revolution in our society — to make it equitable,” Sinaiko said.

“But there were also little, incremental things that might not change a lot, but would make a difference for a group of people,” he said. “… Everything she touched was at least a little bit better for her having been involved.”

Hayes, 62, was killed July 11 in a hit-and-run crash at 49th Street and Drexel Boulevard, one block from her home. The driver of a silver Lexus blew through a stop sign and hit her, then the people in the car ran away from the scene, according to the Sun-Times.

Sinaiko wants those who fled after killing Hayes brought to justice, but he’s “not thirsting for revenge,” he said. “My major emphasis here is sharing the memory of Hannah and telling what she did.”

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Hannah Hayes poses for a photo in the Irish village where she and her husband, Jesse Sinaiko, bought a home three years ago. Locals in the village “were unbelievably upset” upon hearing of Hayes’ death, Sinaiko said.

‘Truth Was Paramount’

Hayes was born Feb. 26, 1960, into an activist family of devout Roman Catholics. Her parents were drawn to the complex ideology of Dorothy Day, the one-time Chicagoan who led the Catholic Workers Movement, Sinaiko said.

After attending the working-class Mother of Sorrows Catholic High School in Blue Island, Hayes moved to Uptown and began working with the radical organizer Slim Coleman’s weekly publication, All Chicago City News.

On her first City Hall assignment for the All Chicago City News, Hayes took a seat in the press corps’ most comfortable chair. Other reporters laughed at her rookie mistake, knowing the seat was claimed by Harry Golden Jr., the “dean of the City Hall press corps,” Sinaiko said.

At 23, Hayes joined the campaign to get Harold Washington elected as Chicago’s first Black mayor. She was charged with helping secure votes from her fellow white South Siders.

She graduated from North Park University in 1987 and returned to work on Washington’s re-election campaign that same year. She later worked as a staffer for then-Ald. Helen Schiller (46th) and City Council’s housing committee.

Claiming Irish citizenship through her grandparents, Hayes moved across the Atlantic in the 1990s. Around 1993, she ending up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, sparking an enduring interest in the Troubles — a conflict she’d report on for outlets from the Sun-Times to the San Francisco Examiner.

Hayes met Sinaiko in late 1993 on a return trip to the United States. After Hayes obtained her master’s in creative writing from DePaul University in 1995, they lived together as civil partners in Northern Ireland and had their only child, Zach. During that time, they were married by a blacksmith in Scotland, Sinaiko said.

The marriage wasn’t recognized by the U.S. when they returned in 2000. In 2008, they were remarried by a “hippie preacher” in a Las Vegas chapel while in the city for Hayes’ brother’s wedding, Sinaiko said.

“It was a good run for us — 29 years,” Sinaiko said. “She was pretty happy in her life last couple of years. She had a big heart, a big brain, a commitment to making good things happen for people on the planet and on the South Side of Chicago.”

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Left to right: Hannah Hayes, her son Zach and her husband Jesse Sinaiko pose for a picture by a creek in County Kerry, Ireland, in 1997.

Hayes was one of the first members of City Bureau’s local Documenters program. She also wrote for the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, Christian Science Monitor, Smithsonian Air and Space and Perspectives, the American Bar Association’s quarterly magazine.

She didn’t live to see a long-awaited article published in the bar association’s flagship Journal. It’s set for release later this month.

In addition to her own writing, Hayes edited dissertations, mainly for University of Chicago doctoral students. She also copy edited books, and was particularly proud of her work on Edith Schiffer’s “Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain,” Sinaiko said.

Hayes’ career as a writer was defined by her trustworthiness, Sinaiko said. She was a “tremendous listener” who could remain factual while using her platform for social change, he said.

“She was able to maintain a slant while writing the truth, even if some of those truths were not necessarily advantageous, or if it would create difficulties in the movements,” Sinaiko said. “Truth was paramount, and just because something has problems doesn’t mean it was not worth fighting for.

“Over the next months, I’ll be going through her files and writings to preserve that,” he said. “That’s her; that’s what’s left, is what she put down on paper.”

Credit: Provided
Hayes, in an undated, candid photo while on the phone in her kitchen.

‘Regular People … Can Make A Difference’

Hayes frequently stepped outside of her journalist role to use her talents as a community advocate.

When Hayes met Sinaiko in the early 1990s, she worked as a bartender at the HotHouse, a cultural nonprofit “that for many years had the best jazz joint in Chicago,” Sinaiko said. Hayes would later serve on the nonprofit’s board after moving back to the U.S. in 2000.

In her later years, much of Hayes’ activism revolved around public education, especially Chicago Public Schools. When her son attended Ray Elementary, Hayes served as treasurer, then president of its parent-teacher association.

Through the nonprofit Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, she worked closely with the South Siders who held a successful 34-day hunger strike to reopen Dyett High School, and protested the other 49 schools closed under Rahm Emanuel.

In 2018, Hayes was elected to Reavis Elementary School’s local school council, where she led an effort to transform an empty classroom into a library. The school plans to dedicate the library in her honor, likely when her memorial is held at the school Aug. 6, Sinaiko said.

Another one of her proudest victories with the council came several weeks ago, when members hired “the principal they wanted” upon the former principal’s retirement, Sinaiko said.

Hayes was an educator herself, most recently as a professor at Bellevue University. She began teaching virtually a decade ago, believing online learning to be the future for certain fields despite its limitations at the time, Sinaiko said.

Even when Hayes “overcommitted” and took on numerous causes and jobs at once, “she would get it done,” Sinaiko said. “She was a closer in that regard.”

Hayes “was not a big ideologue” when it came to her advocacy, Sinaiko said.

“She was not a communist — she was a bit of a socialist, as we all are — but she did not have a major ideology she would adhere to,” he said. “She went after what worked, what was effective, what made people’s lives better and what would sustain.”

With Hayes’ death, Sinaiko mourns “the amount of knowledge, experience, love, willingness to do stuff for the world, just wiped out in a second,” he said.

At the same time, he finds some solace in knowing her memory can inspire others to act on their passions and concerns, just as she did.

“There are more than enough issues out there to attack and deal with: education, policing, wealth distribution, LGBTQ issues, on and on and on,” Sinaiko said. “Regular people, normal people who are good critical thinkers like Hannah, can make a difference.”

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