Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Hess, 68, dedicated life to family, work

SESP Prof. G. Alfred Hess Jr., a social activist and pioneer in educational reform, died Jan. 27 of pancreatic cancer. He was 68.

Those who knew him well spoke of Hess’ dedication to social justice and teaching. His passion drove his decades-long work on school reform in Chicago public schools and his later success as a SESP professor. Hess’ extensive field work in Chicago schools made him an invaluable resource to his students.

“His door was always open,” said SESP senior Anthony Bontempo, who was in a preparatory class last spring with Hess. “(To) get a perspective from a person who had been in the profession for 40 years really eased the tension.”

Hess directed the Chicago Panel on School Policy for 13 years and became one of the architects of the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. He was hired at Northwestern in 1996 by SESP Prof. Solomon Cytrynbaum, who became a close colleague and friend.

Their first project was a data study of Chicago public schools from 1997 to 2000. Hess and Cytrynbaum observed 600 classrooms and compiled an immense amount of data. Hess changed policy by using his analytical skills to translate dense data into meaningful information, Cytrynbaum said. His research showed that Chicago’s dropout rate was much higher than what people estimated.His work also showed that many special education students were being funneled into poorer schools with meager resources.

“He was sort of outstanding with managing and dealing with all kinds of empirical data,” Cytrynbaum said. “That data informed his storytelling.”

After graduating from Ohio’s College of Wooster in 1959, Hess attended the Boston University School of Theology. He worked as a pastor in Massachusetts for several years, then left the church to pursue his Ph.D. at NU.

“I think he had a sense that there was a larger purpose out there,” said his son, Randy Hess, Speech ’86 and Medill MSJ ’91. “Not necessarily leading people to Christianity (but) more just in the sense of being able to care for people’s needs and lead them into better lives.”

Hess was also a committed family man. He became a “rabid soccer fan” when Randy Hess started playing soccer and was equally enthusiastic about his daughter’s ballet.

“He was completely plugged into me and my sister’s pastimes,” said Randy Hess.

Close friends were privy to Hess’ six-month battle with pancreatic cancer through his direct e-mails that Cytrynbaum said resembled Mitch Albom’s popular book, “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

“He invited you as much as you could to share in this experience in his life,” he said. “We started talking about cancer and our relationship and dying in the most open and affirming and meaningful way.”

Hess is survived by his wife, Mary; son Randy; daughter Sarah; and three sisters.

There will be a memorial service at 10 a.m. Feb. 10 at Alice Millar Chapel. A reception will follow at 11 a.m. in the Guild Lounge of Scott Hall.

Reach Deepa Seetharaman at

[email protected].

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Hess, 68, dedicated life to family, work