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Pritzker School Plans Memorial for 'Pied Piper of Poetry'

By Alisa Hauser | March 5, 2013 10:11am

WICKER PARK — Learning to write poetry can be like "spilling your guts out," according to the widow of a man who always said it was his job to "make poets out of everybody."

"He'd tell students, 'Just don't worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar. Write like you're talking,'" said visual poet Batya Hernandez, 50.

Described as the "unofficial poet laureate" of the city by poet Achy Obejas, David Hernandez, 66, passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack Feb. 25 in his Wicker Park home.

"We're settling into 'the new normal,' trying to find what that is," Hernandez said, including the couple's daughter, Matea Flora Hernandez, 14.

Born in Puerto Rico, David Hernandez grew up in Chicago, published seven collections of poetry, was a visiting professor at DePaul University, read poetry for the inauguration and funeral of Mayor Harold Washington and co-founded a poetry ensemble group Street Sounds, among a long list of career highlights.

Most recently, he was working as a contractor to Chicago Public Schools and taught poetry in writing classrooms at Pritzker School.

"He was the Pied Piper, I'm telling you. In urban schools you have 30 seconds to convince kids  before they completely tune out and he got their attention ... . His poetry spoke directly to kids and even the hardest to reach kids, they were waiting for him with five poems when he came back to their classroom," Bayta Hernandez said.

On the morning of his death, David Hernandez was scheduled to be at Pritzker School, where he's long served as a Poet-in-Residence doing a 10-week poetry unit in third- through eighth-grade classrooms.

Three years ago, "poetry benches" featuring artwork and poems written by students who took Hernandez's class were installed in school's inner hallway.

Hernandez had a contract to teach for the rest of the school year, according to Pritzker School writing instructor Jerry Weissbuch.

Weissbuch, who teaches sixth- through eighth-grade writing, said Hernandez "connected to the students and helped them showcase their talent."

"He was able to take their talent open ended and taught them how to write poetry, how to perform poetry," Weissbuch said.

His most recent collection, "The Urban Poems," was published in 2004 by Fractal Edge Press.

Batya Hernandez said she's spent the days after her husband's death by interacting with friends and family on his Facebook page, fielding visits and phone calls, and sifting through a stack of sympathy cards that keep coming in from across the United States.

Together for 20 years and married in 1997, on the fifth anniversary of their first meeting, which took place at the Neutral Turf Poetry Festival at Navy Pier in 1992, the couple fell in love quickly, according to Batya.

"I knew he was reading that day and had heard him on WBEZ. I was a huge fan and was going to go buy his book," Batya recalled.

Batya Hernandez said her favorite poem by her husband is "Why I Deal Words." 

"My vision is Truth, the ultimate human value and my goal is/to write everything in one word. So far that word is Love," David Hernandez wrote in the narrative poem.

Earlier in the same poem, Hernandez wrote, "My humaness is limited. Poems are not."

In addition to Batya and Matea Flora Hernandez, Hernandez leaves behind two stepchildren, Chana and Jeff Goldman, as well as brothers and sisters and many other relatives and friends.

Pritzker School is planning a memorial for Hernandez from 6:30-7:30 p.m  March 18 in the school's auditorium. 

For more information, visit the school's website.  For inquiries regarding a college fund set up for Matea Hernandez, contact the Cremation Society of Illinois at 773-281-5058.