Reginald “Hats” Adams planned to be a pool shark after he was expelled from high school. While he spent the next several years winning money with his pool stick, Hats ultimately devoted more than half a century to improving the health, well-being and education of Chicago youths like himself.
The director of the Department of Community Affairs at Rush University Medical Center since 1980, Hats died on Friday, after a lengthy illness, in his home in Country Club Hills with his wife by his side. He was 75 years old.
“Years ago, Rush grappled at times with how best to serve our community and most effectively relate to our many community stakeholders. Hats was invaluable in these efforts,” says Larry Goodman, MD, Rush’s CEO. “More than anyone I know, he has helped Rush focus on those things that are important and make a real difference.”
“My history with Hats went back 33 years, and I was his boss on paper for quite a few of those years, but it was Hats that guided me rather than the other way around,” adds Peter W. Butler, president of Rush.
Throughout his Rush career, which began in 1968, Hats paid particular attention to the educational concerns of minority students. Thanks to his efforts, in 1990 Rush launched its Science and Math Excellence (SAME) Network in response to the low science, math and reading test scores in Chicago schools in the area surrounding Rush.
The SAME Network has grown into a collaborative partnership between Rush and 24 schools and Chicago-area organizations. The network sponsors after school science clubs, has constructed a dozen science labs, and provides special training programs for teachers and mentoring of students by Rush employees. Last year alone, 2,000 students and educators benefited from the SAME Network’s services.
Hats also instituted a summer study program for minority college students and summer internships for minority high school students. Many who work at Rush first came to the Medical Center through these programs.
In recognition of his efforts and commitment to Rush’s values, in 2007 Rush awarded Hats its highest honor, the Trustee Medal, which recognizes “individuals of distinction … whose achievements provide exemplary standards for generations to come.”
“Hats’ influence certainly will live on for generations after him. We are saddened by his death, but grateful for his service to Rush and our community, and we remain inspired by his example,” Goodman says.
‘I was in trouble a lot’
Hats’ legacy is all the more remarkable given his early misadventures. Born in 1940, he grew up in Chicago and was in his own words “kind of a bad boy” who spent two years at Montefiore Disciplinary School for Boys and was expelled from Marshall High School after three months.
He then spent several years as a professional pool shark. He also parked cars for events at the Chicago Stadium (later replaced by the United Center), often helping himself to the hats left in the backseat, which earned him the nickname that stuck since 1955.
“I was in trouble a lot. And by the sheer grace of God, I got out of a lot of it,” Adams said during a 2011 interview.
His life was changed in 1958, when he was recruited to work for the Henry Horner Chicago Boys Club as a game room instructor. He continued working at Henry Horner for 10 years, later as an education and employment counselor and outreach worker.
He then went to work for Mile Square Health Center (at the time a part of Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital, Rush’s predecessor, and now a part of the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System), which led to him becoming a mental health worker in Rush’s Department of Psychiatry. Hats later worked in employee relations before joining Rush’s newly-formed Department of Community Relations in 1971.
He acted as a liaison between Rush and community leaders and groups, advised minority employees about workplace and personal matters, and consulted with department heads about workplace issues. The job was fraught with conflicts: Adams earned a reputation as a firebrand and an agitator, even as he found himself on the opposite sides of protests led by Danny Davis, then a social worker and now a U.S. Congressman.
“I had to walk a very thin line. The African-Americans didn’t like me because I was working for this white institution. The white institution didn’t like me because I was a militant. So I had to walk down the middle,” he said. “But I’ve always told the truth. If that’s agitation, I’ve agitated a lot of people over my years at Rush.”
At the same time, he advocated effectively for the institution. In the late 1970s, he took a lead role in obtaining community approval of Rush’s construction of its Atrium Hospital Building (which opened in 1982). “My job is to create friends, and I set out to do that, and that’s what I do,” Hats said.
‘Education is a right, not a privilege’
Hats became director of community affairs in 1980, and 10 years later launched the SAME Network, which he regarded as his greatest professional accomplishment. The initiative began with a lunch conversation with colleagues on Good Friday, 1986, when Hats observed he was the only black person in Rush’s dining room and his dining companions encouraged him to take action to change it.
“We looked at the science and math scores in our community and they were dismal, so we decided to form science and math clubs throughout the community on the West Side,” Hats said. “It’s called SAME, because we wanted the kids in the inner city to have the same opportunity as the kids in the more affluent areas.
“Education is a right, it’s not a privilege. I wanted to be a pool shark, and in the old days that may have been possible. But, today with the rapidly changing employment picture, young people need to be educated to use technology and contribute to the fields of science and math.”
SAME’s impact is evident in the response to news of Hats’ death. “His students have been calling since Friday. They have heard about it and they can’t believe it,” Verneice Cherry, community affairs associate. “He has touched a lot of lives. He made a difference. He truly will be missed.”
Hats also launched another initiative that has become a Rush tradition, the annual Adopt-a-Family Program. Rush employees, individually or in groups, “adopt” families in need identified by local churches and service organizations, purchasing clothing, household supplies, gift cards and other needed items for the families.
Adopt-a-Family began more than 30 years ago when Hats learned of a Rush employee who was in need, it later grew into a community program. Last year, Rush employees assisted 117 families through the Program, and more than 80 families already have been adopted so far this year.
In addition to The Trustee Medal from Rush, Hats received numerous other honors for his work. The following is a partial list:
- Martin Luther King, Jr. Life Achievement Award
- Illinois Business-Education Exemplary Partnership Award
- Lawndale Community Service Award
- Henry Horner Alumni Association Health and Education Award
- YMCA Westside Association for Community Action Humanitarian Award
- Matthews AME Church, Inc. Humanitarian of the Year Award
- Rush’s J. Robert Clapp, Jr., Diversity Leadership Award
‘I went with his plan instead of mine’
A member of Third Baptist Church of Chicago for many years, Adams saw himself as a servant and his career as a destiny and a blessing. “I don’t know even to this day how it all came about,” he said in the 2011 interview. “I looked up one day, and community relations was there, and I was in it.
“But it was not my plan. I didn’t want to go into any kind of work that involved children. I liked what I was doing, shooting pool. That was my plan, but that was not God’s plan. And so I went with His plan instead of mine.
“I think that God blessed me in a certain way,” he continued. “Everything that I do and every idea that I get comes from the God that I serve. I don’t think that you can go through life taking. You’ve got to give something back, and my mission is to give back. I do it in my job, I do it in my church, I do it in my home. That’s what I like to do. I enjoy giving back.”
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Adams said simply, “as a man that tried to serve God and that loved his family.”
Hats is survived by his wife, Constance, four children and nine grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter Regina Adams in 2012.
Donations in memory of Hats can be made to the SAME Network to continue support for the efforts he so proudly led on behalf of the children of Chicago. Please send memorial gifts to Rush University Medical Center, 1700 W. Van Buren St., Suite 250, Chicago, IL 60612 or visit http://rush.convio.net/hatsadams.
Services to remember Hats will be held on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 11 a.m. at the Jordan Temple Baptist Church at 4421 Roosevelt Road in Hillside. A viewing will precede the service at 10 a.m.