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Reginald ‘Hats’ Adams, worked nearly 50 years for Rush Hospital, dies at 75

After getting kicked out of high school and spending time at a disciplinary facility for the kind of teens who used to be called “juvenile delinquents,” Reginald “Hats” Adams decided to become a professional pool shark.

He earned a lot of money in pool halls. “Hats” earned his nickname by lifting the hats left in the cars he used to park for money at the old Chicago Stadium.

“I was in trouble a lot,” he said in a 2011 interview. “And by the sheer grace of God, I got out of a lot of it.”

Reginald "Hats" Adams / provided photo

Reginald “Hats” Adams | provided photo

Though he never earned a high school diploma, Mr. Adams was considered one of the most important people in the room at meetings with doctors, scientists and executives at Rush University Medical Center.

A West Side organizer who helped defuse a tense takeover of a hospital office after the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Adams was hired to be Rush’s director of community affairs. Over the decades, his work eased the way for the hospital’s dramatic expansion.

He listened to community complaints about construction, negotiated compromises, assured activists there would be minority hiring, and built a reputation for being honest during his 47-year career with the hospital.

Mr. Adams, 75, died Friday in his home in Country Club Hills.

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., still marvels at the ease of the Afro-wearing, dashiki-clad Mr. Adams as he navigated Rush in the 1960s, a time when any meeting seemed to hold the potential for becoming a sit-in amid black-white tensions, calls for social justice and ending the Vietnam War, and frustration over poverty and assassinations.

Davis recalled accompanying Mr. Adams when he dropped in to see the hospital’s then-president, Dr. James Campbell.

“Is the old man in?” “Hats” asked Campbell’s assistant.

When the assistant said yes, Mr. Adams replied, “Well, let him know Hats is out here.’”

Within seconds, “We’d be ushered into Dr. Campbell’s office,” Davis said.

Gail Warden, the hospital’s former No. 2 executive, remembers watching from the roof as the West Side burned in the riots that followed King’s assassination. Shortly after, “one of the gangs came in and took over my office, the Gangster Stones,” Warden said. “They filed in and started smoking pot in my office. They wanted me to help them fund a community center.”

“The first time they came in, they didn’t put their guns away. They just stared at me, I guess trying to scare me,” said Warden. “They were a pretty rough bunch.”

Mr. Adams, once a mental health worker in Rush’s psychiatric unit, “was my bodyguard-representative, and they listened to him,” Warden said.

Rush President Peter W. Butler said Mr. Adams was a big help when the hospital was planning its Atrium Building on West Harrison.

“He knew all the community leaders who needed to be brought on board, explaining to them this was going to be good for the West Side of Chicago — and not an ivory tower,” Butler said. “Before there was MBE [contracts with minority-owned businesses] and minority vendors and quotas, he was working on all of those things on behalf of Rush and the community.”

In a 2011 oral history he provided to Rush, Mr. Adams said of his career: “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. But I’ve always told the truth. If that’s agitation, I’ve agitated a lot of people over my years at Rush.”

“He was a man of such values, and such a strong moral compass, that over the years, I don’t think anyone questioned what side he was on,” Butler said. “He was on the side of good.”

About 1990, Mr. Adams created SAME (Science and Math Excellence), a program to bring science clubs and labs into neighboring schools, with funding from Rush.

He also worked on a student mentoring program that became a pipeline for jobs and educational opportunities, Butler said.

“I run into individuals all the time who tell me they got their first summer job or first learned to work under the tutelage of Hats,“ Davis said. “Hundreds of people …. Some of them are nurses. Some of them are physicians.”

In 2007, the hospital awarded him a Trustee Medal, its highest honor.

Before becoming Rush’s community relations director, Mr. Adams worked as a game room instructor for the Henry Horner Boys Club.

Mr. Adams is survived by his wife, Constance, four children and nine grandchildren. A viewing is planned at 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by an 11 a.m. service at Jordan Temple Baptist Church, 4421 Roosevelt Road, Hillside.