Jim Hayes, former Cal Poly journalism professor, dies at 88

Jim Hayes in 1978.
Jim Hayes in 1978. Tribune file photo

Former Cal Poly journalism professor Jim Hayes, whose reporting, teaching and writing coaching career spanned more than 60 years, died Tuesday at his home in Los Osos. He was 88.

The son of a newspaper editor, Hayes worked for 18 years on newspapers in Oklahoma, California, Arizona and Washington, D.C.

He joined the Cal Poly journalism faculty in 1969 and taught there for 23 years until retiring in 1992. During his tenure he served as acting head of the journalism department and was the founder and director of the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication.

Before arriving at Cal Poly, Hayes taught in Florida, Arizona and Minnesota, in addition to a stint at the American University in Egypt in 1966-67 — a job ended by the Six-Day War.

As a professor, Hayes was alternately a gruff taskmaster and an understanding confidant.

Students who commiserated after receiving “F” grades on stories from Hayes never hesitated to listen to his writing advice. Many considered him a mentor and continued to stay in touch long after leaving Cal Poly.

“Our class was required to have perfect spelling on each and every piece of work turned in,” a former student once told The Tribune in a story about Hayes’ retirement dinner. “It was a Hayes-ism. One misspelled word and the paper was dead, no matter what brilliant writing went into it.”

His talent as an educator did not go unnoticed.

While at Cal Poly, Hayes was named the top journalism professor in the state by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and was honored by the university with its Distinguished Teaching Award. He became professor emeritus upon his retirement.

"Jim was a mentor to many, and a friend to generations of people who benefited from his sometimes crusty, but always nurturing way of helping journalists all over the country to get better," said Andy Lippman, former AP chief of bureau in Los Angeles. "He was someone whom I cared for as a friend and as a mentor."

James H. Hayes was born in Los Angeles on Aug. 28, 1925. Hayes attended schools in Southern California before enlisting in the Navy in World War II. He served four years, most of it aboard amphibious command ships in the Pacific.

Hayes married the former Ellen Louise Mann in 1964. They settled in Los Osos when Hayes took the job at Cal Poly.

Hayes believed he was destined for a writing career.

“My mother, a nurse who wanted to be a writer, read to me when I was too young to talk,” he wrote on his website. “My father, an Associated Press bureau chief in Honolulu and Phoenix, used wire copy to teach me to read.” Hayes never stopped working part-time as a reporter, editor and writing coach throughout his teaching career.

He was the editor for eight years of Focus, the predecessor of The Tribune’s Ticket section, and also worked as a copy editor at what was then called the Telegram-Tribune. He then worked as a writing coach, with clients including The Associated Press and reporters and editors from the Los Angeles Times.

When his writing coaching contract with the L.A. Times wasn’t renewed because of budget cuts, Hayes continued to write. He sold a piece to the Times that was published April 30, 2006, in “West,” the paper’s magazine section.

It was a memoir of his childhood in Southern California.

“Slightly embellished, I might add,” Hayes said in an interview.

In November 2006, Hayes saw the fruition of another longtime project with the publication of a 176-page hardbound book featuring the art of retired Cal Poly art professor Robert Reynolds.

The idea of the book, said Hayes, was hatched 30 years earlier when both he and Reynolds met at Cal Poly.

Hayes said he rarely visited Cal Poly after he retired. On one of his last visits, which involved the book’s publication, Hayes found a much different environment than the one he recalled as a professor.

“Everybody was half-naked, wearing flip-flops, with cell phones in their ears.”

Hayes was an avid golfer who often played the Morro Bay and Dairy Creek courses. He once carded a hole-in-one at a course in Idaho.

Besides his wife, Ellen, survivors include three sons, two daughters and five grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Jim Hayes Scholarship Fund at Cal Poly.

Funeral arrangements are pending.