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David Hernandez, ‘unofficial poet laureate of Chicago,’ dies at 66

Updated: March 28, 2013 6:40AM

David Hernandez stood 5 feet 2 inches tall but towered as the “unofficial poet laureate of Chicago” when he read aloud his poems written on an IBM Selectric typewriter he called “Clarissa Clack.”

Mr. Hernandez drew inspiration from a city’s quietly diligent people — a father working four jobs to make ends meet, a homeless man rooting through Dumpsters for cans.

Mr. Hernandez’s work was anything but ordinary.

“Sure, he talked about Puerto Ricans and about people of color,” said his friend and fellow Chicago writer, Achy Obejas. “But mostly, he talked about working people, regardless of color. He talked about the beauty of ordinary people, which is why ordinary people loved him.”

Mr. Hernandez, who began writing poetry at age 11 and never stopped, died of a suspected heart attack Monday at his Logan Square loft, said his wife, Batya Hernandez. Mr. Hernandez was 66.

While he wasn’t the first to find color in the commonplace, Mr. Hernandez did it with an infectious humor and a love that was all his own. And he did it with a musical accompaniment — “Street Sounds,” a performance ensemble he founded in 1971.

“I always felt that if you didn’t see David on stage, you weren’t getting the full experience,” Obejas said.

“There was something about his rapport and his relationship with the people in the audience.”

Mr. Hernandez was born in 1946 in Cidra, a small city in Puerto Rico. His family came to Chicago during the Puerto Rican migration in the mid-1950s. His father made candy bars at the Baby Ruth factory, and his mother cleaned bedpans at Chicago hospitals.

Mr. Hernandez had joked to many audiences through the years that he chose poetry when his fifth-grade teacher told him poets “don’t have to worry about commas, grammar and spelling. I said, ‘Bingo! I’m a poet!’”

Through the years, Mr. Hernandez read his poetry at countless venues across the city, drawing overflow crowds of people from all walks of life. He published seven books of his work.

“There’s always been an extremely vital poetry scene in Chicago,” said Mr. Hernandez in a 2009 interview with Literary License, a newsletter for the local Society of Midland Authors. “This city is a neon lady that nurtures quiet or introspective, loud and brassy poets.”

For the last 10 years, Mr. Hernandez nurtured his own poetry behind an expansive bamboo-topped desk in a Logan Square loft with a view of an alley. The backs of other people’s houses, Dumpsters and the people who frequented that space provided the perfect inspiration for his work, his wife said.

“He loved city alley views,” she said. “He was all about Chicago, and the little spots of Chicago.”

Not long before he died, Mr. Hernandez completed his memoirs — a project he’d been working on for about a year, his wife said.

“That’s something that hopefully will see the light of day — posthumously,” Batya Hernandez said. “It was almost like he did know [he was going do die]. He was so driven to finish.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include: a daughter, Matea Flora Hernandez; a stepdaughter, Chana Goldman; a stepson, Jeff Goldman; two brothers, Samuel Hernandez and Eliud Hernandez; a sister, Alma Wells; and a granddaughter, Benita Goldman.

A celebration event of Mr. Hernandez’s life is being planned.

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