By LINDSAY WELBERS
When she was asked to list her achievements and honors, Nancy Hays told her high school alumnae association that she was arrested in 1965 “during a pro-park, anti-highway protest.”
Nancy Campbell Hays left an indelible mark on Hyde Park before she died in 2007. The Chicago Park District will likely name a bridge on the north end of Wooded Isle after her early next year.
When Hays died on May 31, 2007, she had lived for nearly 50 years in Hyde Park, photographing its daily events for the Hyde Park Herald and advocating for the preservation of its parks and green spaces.
Hays made her career as a photographer, working freelance for the Hyde Park Herald, and as an activist for preservation of the parks system.
She was a founding member of Friends of the Parks and the Daniel Burnham Committee and president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council. She received accolades from the Chicago Audubon Society in 1997 for her environmental reporting.
Hays was born in 1923 and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich. She attended high school at Chatham Hall in Chatham, Va., graduating in 1941. She graduated from the University of Michigan and studied at the School of Modern Photography.
Her first professional photographs were published under the name Campbell Hays, as women photographers were uncommon and she thought using the moniker would get her more work.
She traveled to Europe in 1949, photographing for the American Friends Service Committee. The work allowed her to see Czechoslovakia, Amsterdam and the Gaza Strip, among other locations.
She moved to Chicago in 1958. By 1961 she was already taking on the Chicago Park District, when it had planned to cut down trees to add two more baseball diamonds than the community had asked for.
She once catalogued more than 1,000 trees to survey sick and dead elms. The Chicago Tribune ran a story using her data that would become front-page news and lead to the reorganization of the Forestry Bureau.
The Daniel Burnham Committee was a grassroots organization that advocated for preservation of the parks. Hays was arrested when she protested then-mayor Richard J. Daley’s attempt to cut down trees in Burnham Park, 5491 S. South Shore Dr.
Daley was attempting to widen Lake Shore Drive near 54th Street, a move that would have required the destruction of parkland and trees. Hays and six other members of the Burnham Committee were charged with violating an ordinance that outlawed posting handbills or fliers on trees when they tied ribbons around them.
Eventually the plan to expand Lake Shore Drive was scrapped and the trees were granted reprieve.
Her photography exhibit “The Ingenious Child” showcased children at play in Hyde Park and Chicago during urban renewal, usually at construction sites or non-sanctioned play spaces.
“I think Nancy’s pictures of kids were some of the most wonderful pictures I have ever seen,” said Stephanie Franklin, who counted Nancy among her friends.
Francy Hays, Nancy’s niece, said photographing children was where she excelled.
“She had the ability to be very, very still and observe and wait until the children had completely forgotten she was there,” Francy Hays said.
Many of her photographs were used in textbooks and Scholastic Magazine and she would occasionally use her nieces and nephews as subjects.
Francy said her two brothers, twins with a four-inch height difference, were used frequently to illustrate how different twins can be.
Ted Hays, the shorter twin, made frequent trips to visit Nancy during her later years.
“You couldn’t walk around the neighborhood with Nancy … without her stopping and talking to every other person,” Ted Hays said. “Everybody knew Nancy, including the panhandler. It was stunning.”
Janet Giovanis was Nancy’s friend and downstairs neighbor in her later years. Giovanis would visit with Nancy in the afternoons, bringing her two young sons in tow. Her cavernous apartment was full to the brim with books, hallways, little nooks, even a darkroom.
“Her manual typewriter was just ‘the thing.’ It was on her desk, it moved around and she would set up a piece of paper in it and encourage my oldest son, Isaac, to just type and she and I would talk over the clatter of the typewriter and it was a lovely thing,” Giovanis said.
The park district began a 45-day comment period, which will end on Jan. 6, to accept public input on the bridge renaming. The park district board will vote to approve or deny the name change at either the January or February meeting.