KENWOOD – The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Harold Washington’s historic campaign for mayor. Pay inequality for women lawyers. The absence of a library in the primary school in his neighborhood.

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

She was ready to act on it, using her communication, writing and organizational skills to better the world in any way she could, said Jesse Sinaiko, her husband of 14 years and partner of 29.

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

“But there were also little incremental things that maybe wouldn’t change much, but would make a difference for a group of people,” he said. “…everything she touched was at least a little better for her involvement.”

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

Sinaiko wants those who fled after killing Hayes to be brought to justice, but he “is not out for revenge”, he said. “My main goal here is to share Hannah’s memory and what she did.”

Credit: Provided
Hannah Hayes poses for a photo in the Irish village where she and her husband, Jesse Sinaiko, bought a house three years ago. Residents of the village “were incredibly upset” upon learning of Hayes’ death, Sinaiko said.

“The truth was paramount”

Hayes was born on February 26, 1960, into a militant family of devout Roman Catholics. Her parents were drawn to the complex ideology of Dorothy Day, the former 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 radical organizer Slim Coleman’s weekly publication, All Chicago City News.

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

At 23, Hayes joined the campaign to elect Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor. She was tasked with helping secure the votes of her fellow white South Side people.

She graduated from North Park University in 1987 and returned to work on Washington’s re-election campaign the same year. She then worked as a staff member for Ald. Helen Schiller (46th) and the City Council Housing Committee.

Claiming Irish citizenship through her grandparents, Hayes crossed the Atlantic in the 1990s. Around 1993 she found herself in Belfast, Northern Ireland, sparking a lasting interest in the Troubles – a conflict she reported on for outlets ranging from the Sun-Times to the San Francisco Examiner.

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

The marriage was not recognized by the United States when they returned in 2000. In 2008, they were remarried by a “hippie preacher” in a Las Vegas chapel while in town for the Hayes’ brother’s wedding, Sinaiko said.

“It was a good run for us – 29,” said Sinaiko. “She was pretty happy with her life for the past two years. She had a big heart, a big brain, a commitment to making good things happen for people around the planet and on Chicago’s South Side.

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

Hayes was an early member of the City Bureau’s local Documenters program. She has also written for the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, the Christian Science Monitor, the Smithsonian Air and Space, and Perspectives, the quarterly magazine of the American Bar Association.

She didn’t live to see a long-awaited article published in the bar association’s flagship journal. Its release is scheduled for later this month.

In addition to his own writings, Hayes edited theses, primarily for doctoral students at the University of Chicago. She also copied 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 has been defined by his dependability, Sinaiko said. She was a “super listener” who could stay factual while using her platform for social change, he said.

“She was able to maintain a tilt while writing the truth, even though some of those truths weren’t necessarily beneficial, or it created difficulty in movement,” Sinaiko said. “The truth was paramount, and just because something is in trouble doesn’t mean it’s not worth fighting for.

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

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

“Ordinary people… can make a difference”

Hayes frequently left his role as a journalist to use his skills as a community advocate.

When Hayes met Sinaiko in the early 1990s, she was working as a bartender at HotHouse, a nonprofit cultural organization “which for many years had the best jazz joint in Chicago,” Sinaiko said. Hayes would later serve on the association’s board of directors after returning to the United States in 2000.

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

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

In 2018, Hayes was elected to the local school board at Reavis Elementary School, where she led an effort to turn an empty classroom into a library. The school plans to dedicate the library in his honor, likely when his memorial takes place at the school on Aug. 6, Sinaiko said.

Another of her victories she is most proud of with the board came several weeks ago, when the members hired “the director they wanted” upon the former director’s retirement, Sinaiko said.

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

Even when Hayes “overcommitted” and took on many causes and jobs at once, “she would pull it off,” Sinaiko said. “She was closer in that regard.”

Hayes “wasn’t a big ideologue” when it came to her advocacy, Sinaiko said.

“She wasn’t a communist — she was a bit of a socialist, like we all are — but she didn’t have a major ideology that she would adhere to,” he said. “She went after what worked, what was effective, what made people’s lives better and what was going to last.”

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

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

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

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