Nia Odeoti-Hassan, Illinois Senate staffer, dies at age 74 – The State Journal-Register

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Nia Odeoti-Hassan, with then-state Sen. Barack Obama. Odeoti-Hassan, who worked in the Illinois Senate for 36 years, mentored Obama and two worked closely when he became chairperson of the Senate health and welfare committee.

Illinois State Sen. Doris Turner and Nia Odeoti-Hassan met working at the Illinois State Senate in the early 1980s.

So when Turner was appointed to replace Sen. Andy Manar in the 48th district in early 2021, she recalled both Odeoti-Hassan and her were in tears about Turner’s new role.

“She was very proud that I was chosen to move into that position,” Turner recalled. “It was a day of jubilation for both of us for a lot of different reasons. 

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“I would say that no matter what space you’re talking about, she was always very well respected, and her counsel was sought.”

A native of Newport News, Virginia, Odeoti-Hassan, who spent 36 years in the Senate as a policy and budget analyst for the public health and environment committees, died in Springfield on June 26. She was 74.

Among those Odeoti-Hassan mentored was President Barack Obama, who served as a state Senator from 1997 to 2004. Obama was the Democratic spokesperson for the Senate public health and welfare committee and chairperson of the Senate health and welfare committee.

Driss El Akrich, a human resources generalist for the Illinois House of Representatives, said Odeoti-Hassan took him under her wing when he first came to Springfield in 2006.

“She introduced me to the Illinois General Assembly,” El Akrich remembered. “She was then at the Senate, so I was honored to be introduced to so many senators. I was allowed to go to the Senate floor. I saw how the Senate worked, how the whole legislative process worked. I was honored to go to so many gatherings with her.

“She would always call me her son or her nephew. She was also happy when I got my Ph.D., and she started calling me, ‘my son, Dr. Driss.'”

El Akrich, Odeoti-Hassan and former Springfield resident Maryam Mostoufi, all members of the Islamic Society of Greater Springfield, were instrumental in organizing the first Muslim Action Day at the state Capitol in 2009.

“We became the liaison with other Muslim organizations in Chicago,” El Akrich said. “Because of her knowing the ins and outs of the legislative process, she was a great asset to all of the (Muslim) community.”

Odeoti-Hassan’s daughter, Eman Hassan, said another religious right her mother fought for was the passage of the Halal Food Act, which was signed by Gov. George Ryan in 2001.

The act provided for inspections by the Illinois Department of Agriculture to ensure that all food labeled Halal was prepared according to Islamic law.

“She let her faith play out by her actions,” said Hassan, who now lives in Nashville. “That’s always been a thing with her. She always said a lot of people talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

“She told me, ‘Eman, the most important thing is that you be a good person and that you always be kind, because when it’s your time to go, that’s what people will remember you by, by how kind you were, not by your accomplishments, but how you treated people.'”

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Chris Boyster of New Berlin knew Odeoti-Hassan from the Capitol as a lobbyist for the Illinois Collaboration on Youth

Several years ago, Boyster, a former Sangamon County Board member, posted on Facebook about being in Nashville for Thanksgiving. Boyster’s sister-in-law was getting married, so the family was down there to meet the soon-to-be husband.

“On Thanksgiving morning at 8 a.m., I get a call from Nia,” Boyster recalled. “She said Eman couldn’t make it (to Springfield) and she couldn’t make it to Nashville. Would I mind inviting her over?

“Eman came by and fit in like we’d known her forever. She carries her mother’s personality that way. (For Nia), it was calling up extended family. I saw her as a protective mother who didn’t want her child to be alone. I would’ve done the exact same thing for my son. That was the moment for me that I really realized how kind she was.

“I related to her as a parent.”

El Akrich said he and Odeoti-Hassan traveled widely together to meetings or interfaith gatherings. 

In later years when she couldn’t drive, Odeoti-Hassan would give El Akrich boxes of cards to be mailed.

“She was very meticulous and detailed about them,” he said. “She would tell me, ‘This person I know from Virginia. This person I know from Alabama. This person is from Chicago.’ She always valued everyone.

“She had friends across faiths, across races, across ages. She was very personable to everybody.”

And about that certain state Senator who became the 44th president?

In 2016, Odeoti-Hassan told State Journal-Register political reporter and columnist Bernie Schoenburg that in 1996 she planned to move to Chicago.

Then-Sen. Emil Jones Jr., leader of the Democratic caucus, asked her to stay to work with the newly elected Obama.

“I think he’s going places,” Odeoti-Hassan recalled Jones telling her. “If I didn’t stay, I would have missed history. I have never seen somebody rise that fast.”

Turner said her mentoring of Obama was the thing she was proudest of in her professional career, and she stayed in touch with him.

“She spoke highly of (Obama),” El Akrich recalled. “She was a pillar in that (healthcare) committee, and he was on that committee.”

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After Odeoti-Hassan retired from the Senate in 2017, Obama mailed her a letter wishing her a happy retirement and reminisced on their time working together, Hassan said. He also always sent her a holiday card. 

When Manar joined the Senate staff as a budget analyst in 1998, his mentor, Sen. Vince Demuzio, D-Carlinville, told him that he would learn a lot sticking close to Odeoti-Hassan.

Nia Odeoti-Hassan, right, with her daughter, Eman Hassan. Odeoti-Hassan worked for 36 years in the Illinois Senate before retiring in 2017. She died in Springfield on June 26.

“He, like countless others on both sides of the aisle, respected her knowledge of the legislative process and issues related to healthcare and human services,” said Manar, now deputy governor. ”It’s hard to think of any individual who has had such a profound impact in the healthcare policy arena over the past several decades in the state of Illinois as Nia.

“She always led with her heart. Her compassion for others was what drove her work. She made Illinois a better place.”

Although she was active in local Democratic politics as a precinct committeewoman and a member of the Westside Democratic Club (now the Greater Springfield Democrats), Turner said Odeoti-Hassan was a consensus-builder and didn’t like divisiveness.

“She would tell you her opinion,” Turner said, “but not in an overbearing or aggressive manner, just willing to work in a way to reach a successful end.

“Nia was one of the first people who encouraged me to run for office and every political move I made, I would definitely talk to her about it, and she was always extremely, extremely supportive.

“She touched a lot of lives in a lot of different spaces from her faith community to her professional community to her sorority (Alpha Kappa Alpha) to her political activities. I would say a life well lived and her presence is definitely going to be missed but she left a footprint in every as aspect of my adult life that I will never forget. I will definitely miss her.”

Eman Hassan said in more recent years her mother had a badly pinched nerve on her spine. She had other health complications, Hassan said, and had been exposed to COVID-19.

Hassan said her mother loved telling people about Hassan’s job as an artist relations manager for Indigo Road Entertainment. It will have Hassan out on the road with country singer Sam Hunt (including an Aug. 12 stop at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield) and comedian Jeff Dunham.

“About a week ago, she told me, ‘I’m really proud of you,’ and that obviously meant a lot,” Hassan said. “It’s given me some comfort knowing that so many people loved her and that she touched so many people’s lives and what people said about her, they truly meant.” 

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.

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July 5, 2022 at 06:57AM

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