Jim Hayes, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, taught journalism at Cal Poly for 24 years and worked as department chair for two years. | Kelly Hayes/Courtesy Photo

Katharine Gore
Special to Mustang News

Joanne Sbranti-Estrada remembers the first time she met Jim Hayes. It was 1976 and she had just transferred to the Cal Poly journalism program from another college. She’d been an editor and worked at three newspapers prior to Cal Poly, and she was confident in her writing skills.

Hayes, who was teaching an upper-division reporting class, told her if she did well in the class’s first assignment, she only had to attend for the first week and would get an “A” for the quarter. Sbranti-Estrada worked hard on the assignment and was feeling like “hot stuff” when she handed it over to Hayes.

“He ripped me up one side and down the other,” Sbranti-Estrada said. “But it was in a way that was really showing me how I could have written and made it better.”

Sbranti-Estrada said the experience made her realize how much she had to learn.

Within two weeks of graduation, Sbranti-Estrada landed her first full-time reporting job and has worked for newspapers since, spending the past 25 years as a reporter for The Modesto Bee.

Sbranti-Estrada, like many others, is spending time remembering Hayes, who taught journalism at Cal Poly for 24 years, from 1969 to 1992, and worked as the journalism department chair for two years beginning in 1986. Now in his late 80s, the former professor and writing coach for newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He has decided against treatment and is on home hospice care in Los Osos.

When word spread of his declining health, stories and kind words poured into his home, as well as a “We Love Jim Hayes” Facebook group.

“No matter where Mr. Hayes was on campus, people gathered around him,” Sbranti-Estrada said. “He told great stories about his days as a reporter, and most of those tales had some kind of poignant point.”

The red pen

If Hayes’ students misspelled a word or made a typo, they got an automatic “F” on the assignment and a note that said “See me!” to explain why they failed the assignment.

Mark Looker, the former student of Hayes who created the “We Love Jim Hayes” Facebook group, said the “See me!” notes are among the many things the group’s more than 360 followers remember about Hayes.

“What Jim Hayes taught me was the importance of accuracy, and I think that’s what stuck with a lot of us all of these years,” Looker said.

Looker graduated from Cal Poly with a journalism degree in 1976. Hayes helped him get his second job in journalism at a small weekly newspaper, and they kept in touch over time. Hayes, the first director for the Brock Center of Agricultural Communication at Cal Poly, got Looker involved on the industry advisory council at the Brock Center.

“The thing about Jim is he always kept up on everything, and so once Facebook came about, he got on it,” Looker said.

After Hayes’ diagnosis, people started to exchange stories about him on Facebook. Looker set up the group to share stories.

Hayes’ daughter Dayle Hayes said her father never sought the spotlight and was often embarrassed by the attention he received. The Facebook group was no different.

“I’ll tell you … he wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea, and when I told him about it he kind of gave me a look,” Looker said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s a great way to share stories.’”

Jeanette Trompeter, now the evening news anchor and a reporter at KSBY-TV in San Luis Obispo, is another one of Hayes’ former students. She said there isn’t anyone she went to school with and took a class with Jim Hayes who didn’t get an “F” and “See me!” note at one point.

“He figured if you can’t get someone’s name right, how can anyone trust you to get the details of the story right?” Trompeter said.

But the students always got a lesson out of their “See me!” notes, Trompeter said.

Dayle said her father values accuracy in all aspects of his life.

“He is, although some of these things are starting to slip now, fastidious, in terms of how he dressed, remembered people’s birthday’s … all those kinds of things,” Dayle said.

Now, Dayle said, Hayes has five grandchildren, and he’s interested in their stories and experiences.

“It’s all about the story,” Dayle said.

Meeting his expectations

Sbranti-Estrada said Hayes always made her feel as if she was his favorite student. She didn’t realize until many years later that he made many of his students feel that way.

“He was more than an adviser,” Sbranti-Estrada said. “He was an inspiration, a mentor and a friend.”

Trompeter said Hayes had a unique skill of instilling fear in his students, while simultaneously causing them to want to please him.

“There was a definite intimidation factor with him,” Trompeter said. “I don’t know that I — or most colleagues that I’ve talked to over the last few months — ever felt like we were worthy or like we could meet his expectations. However, he had a way of correcting you and giving you the confidence when you walked out the door that if you gave it your best, you could be good.”

Trompeter said he didn’t have much patience for idiocy in any way.

“If you weren’t going to try and you really didn’t care, he didn’t have much use for you,” Trompeter said. “You either had the hunger to be a writer or a journalist or you didn’t, and if you had the hunger, he’d work on the skills with you.”

Trompeter said writing didn’t come naturally to her, but Hayes influenced her more than any person in her life when it came to writing.

Hayes also taught his students how to ask the right questions. He would pretend to be a source and have the students act as reporters and ask him questions — then point out the important questions that they missed.

Looker said Hayes’ legacy is his approach to journalism ethics.

“He taught people about how important it is to be accurate, to be fair, to work hard and get your story done,” Looker said. “And I think that’s just as relevant today as it was back when he was teaching.”

Sbranti-Estrada, Looker, Trompeter and Dayle said Hayes kept in contact with his students and had a broad network of people that he mentored, talked to and spent time with for decades.

Family and fans

Since he elected to not get treatment, Hayes has been receiving hospice care at home for almost three months. He has a caretaker who comes in at night, but his five children care for him in rotating shifts every day.

“The two youngest siblings who live here have mainly done the heavy lifting,” Dayle said of Jason and Kelly Hayes. Dayle lives in Montana and travels to Los Osos regularly to care for her father. Hayes’ other sons, Joshua and Patrick, also come when they can.

“We are all tremendously dedicated to him, just like the fans,” Dayle said.

Dayle said the outpouring of support, affection and gratitude has been wonderful and heartwarming for the family. She reads her father the stories his former students post on Facebook.

“He, at this point, is no longer able to read, which is very sad for someone whose life depended on words and reading,” Dayle said.

If every college had a Jim Hayes…

Trompeter said Cal Poly needs to value professors like Hayes, who can teach as well as give students insight into the world outside college.

“It’s a Learn By Doing school, and I was better equipped to get into journalism because I had a professor like Jim Hayes who taught me real-world skills and expectations,” Trompeter said.

Hayes worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, The Fresno Bee and the Evening Star in Washington, D.C. before he taught at Cal Poly, so he came with authority and knowledge.

“I just think if every college had a Jim Hayes, the world would be full of a lot of higher-quality journalists than it is today,” Trompeter said.

Looker said Hayes embodies all the good things about journalism.

“He helped create the great journalism program, and it is just as strong now as it has ever been,” Looker said.

Sbranti-Estrada said Cal Poly faculty need to commit to students and put them first, like Hayes did. Teachers, she said, should make it their life’s work to inspire their students to achieve.

“When I think ‘Cal Poly,’” Sbranti-Estrada said, “I think of Jim Hayes.”

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