An obituary by Maureen O’Donnell for Chicago’s Sun Times.
A Puerto Rican polymath, Billy Zayas wrote poetry and plays, hosted radio shows, produced TV, taught college classes and was a master of ceremonies at Chicago political gatherings.
He was probably best known as longtime co-host of WLS-Channel 7’s airing of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Parade.
“He was brilliant. He was so erudite,” said his hosting partner of at least 15 years, now-retired reporter Theresa Gutierrez. “Billy cared nothing about material things, just his books and his students.”
For several years, Mr. Zayas co-hosted “Mambo Express,” a 30-year-old radio program about Afro-Cuban jazz and its many musical descendants, including mambo, cha cha cha, danzon and rhumba. “Billy was very articulate,” said the show’s founder, bandleader Victor Parra. “Billy had the opening monologue. He did the play-by-play and I was the analyst.
“He was very versatile. He was a good speaker. He had a good memory, a good head,” said Parra, who continues to host the show, airing 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays on WDCB-FM (90.9).
Mr. Zayas, 69, died on April 11 after being felled by a stroke in February.
A “New Yorican” born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, he earned a master’s degree in education in 1971 from Harvard University. He attended City College of New York and Inter-American University of Puerto Rico-San German, according to a friend, Susan Alvarez. She organized his April 23 service at a funeral home where he had been working, Alvarez Funeral Directors, 2500 N. Cicero.
After arriving in Chicago in the 1970s, he worked as a producer or host on radio shows with Hispanic themes, delving into health issues, music and public affairs at WBEZ, WFYR, WBBM, WIND, WOJO and WOPA. For Channel 7, Mr. Zayas helped produce “Tapestry,” a program about the interactions between established Hispanic immigrants and newer arrivals.
He taught poetry and fiction at Northeastern University, television production at Columbia College, and social sciences at Roosevelt University, Alvarez said. He worked on the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival organized by Facets.
He did all this despite dyslexia, Theresa Gutierrez said.
In the 1980s, he organized Latin music festivals for the Old Town School of Folk Music. A former board member at the Jazz Institute of Chicago, “Billy had a great interest in Latin jazz and was helpful to us when we created an annual slot in our JazzCity neighborhood concert series,” said Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the institute. The program, Sonidos Calientes (Hot Sounds), has been running since 1998, she said.
Mr. Zayas also co-authored a satirical play, “Carniceria Rodriguez,” in which characters from different Latino backgrounds unite to fight exploitation, according to the 2011 Marc Zimmerman book, “Defending Their Own in the Cold — The Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans.” The play anticipated “not only the years of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor, but Jesse Jackson’s call for a ‘rainbow coalition,’ ” Zimmerman wrote.
Billy Zayas was a benefactor of the Latino Chicago Theater Company, said Felipe Camacho, a member of that ensemble.
“He touched lots of people,” said a friend, photographer Carlos Flores. “He would remind me of a poet, the way he described the world.”
In addition to being an early supporter of Mayor Washington, Mr. Zayas did work for U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. “Billy helped me on my first congressional campaign, and before that, when I was an alderman,” Gutierrez said. “He produced and filmed videos. I remember him as creative, loving and energetic. Always active and living every moment to the fullest.”
In the last decade of his life, he worked at Alvarez Funeral Directors, where his people skills and writing talent made him a big asset, Susan Alvarez said. He comforted grieving families and wrote tributes for their relatives. “Sometimes he wrote poetry for people. Sometimes he would do a eulogy for some families, or sometimes he would sing at the graveside, sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ ’’ she said.
Despite the sadness that can surround a funeral home, “He liked a place that is not as hectic,” she said.
He loved to read Faulkner, listen to Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdes, and attend the Lyric Opera and Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier.
His ashes and those of a favorite dog, Shaggy, will be placed together in his mausoleum, Alvarez said.