David Tom Story

Photo: David Tom


“Me no crazy” Tragedy and Triumph

David Tom, a Chinese immigrant, made international headlines in 1983 by being freed after spending 31 years inside Illinois mental health institutions.

Mr. Tom’s saga began when he was in his mid-twenties, around 1952, after being admitted to a sanitarium in Chicago for treatment of tuberculosis.

His inability to communicate in English, his medical isolation from friends and family (the protocol for tuberculosis at the time) and his status as a young man in a strange country with strange customs some 10,000 miles from home created a fertile setting for misunderstanding his condition and actual needs. A situation that would be traumatic for almost anyone, was also perfect for triggering an incipient mental illness.

Hospital reports suggest that he began acting strangely, which doctors interpreted as mental illness. Perhaps incipient schizophrenia, perhaps misinterpretation — records are not clear. In either case, the situation was handled disastrously with nightmarish consequences that every new immigrant would concede might be amongst their worst possible fears.

Mr. Tom, who spoke virtually no English, was able to say, “Me, no crazy,”  but was, however, fluent in both Toishanese and Cantonese, the two predominant Chinese dialects spoken by the majority of Chinese- Americans, not only in Chicago but also in the whole of the United States.

Unfortunately, his bi-lingual abilities seemingly went unnoticed or were simply disregarded by the Illinois Department of Mental Health that did not seek the help of a Chinese interpreter. Furthermore, they provided him no diagnosis, no therapy, no counseling, in fact, no staff or fellow patient to speak with him in his own language during his next 31 years of enforced institutionalization.

Was Mr. Tom’s subsequent mental decline a result of a series of misdiagnoses that might have been cleared up by an interpreter or had he been experiencing incipient schizophrenia?  If it was the latter, that would have required a reduction of the traumatic situation triggering the mental illness, rather than an exacerbation of the trauma by locking him away with no one to talk to, no friends or family to visit, and no hope of ever being freed. Either way, the system failed him.

After languishing in mental institutions around the State for three decades, Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy learned of the case, beginning an historic court battle that finally ended Mr. Tom’s tragic incarceration once and for all. The story garnered local, national, and worldwide attention.

Unfortunately by this time Mr. Tom was exhibiting full-blown schizophrenia, manic depression, brain damage and aphasia that rendered him functioning behaviorally and cognitively at the level of a two or three-year-old child, all from lack of proper diagnosis and treatment during his incarceration.

The modest monetary award obtained on David Tom’s behalf from the State of Illinois could never compensate for the loss of his most precious and productive years, his compromised mental health, and the cognitive impairment he was forced to endure the rest of his life.

His psychiatrist warned that adapting to life outside of the mental institution or teaching Mr. Tom, now in his mid-fifties, anything new would be impossible.

Being severely brain-damaged, having lost his ability to speak in all but limited broken words and phrases; having lost appropriate social senses, including the ability to normally relate or socialize with others; and having inherited the side effects from decades of an assortment of toxic high-dose psychotropic drugs, Mr. Tom faced daunting minute-to-minute challenges for himself and his caretakers.

The Association of Chinese from Indochina (later renamed as South-East Asia Center in 1986), a refugee mutual assistance association, led by Mr. Peter Porr and Ms. San O, was the only entity at the time responding to the call for help from the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office.  No other organization, individuals, family or friends were willing or able to take on the burden of caring for Mr. Tom.

Against all odds and attesting to the perseverance and will of both Mr. Tom and his caretakers, he finally achieved perhaps the happiest and most serene (bumps acknowledged) years of his life. Ms. O and Mr. Porr with the aid of Ms. Run-Hao Hu and many other staff and friends over the next 30 years were able to provide a much enhanced quality of life for Mr. Tom until his passing in 2014 at the estimated age of 84.

The South-East Asia Center established the David Tom Settlement House where Mr. Tom and his caretakers were able to live and where he once again was able to hear the familiar sounds of his native tongue, enjoy the Chinese cooking he grew up with, and be comforted in his old age by his new family who grew to love and protect him as their own childlike big brother.

The David Tom Settlement House is the last residential settlement house in Chicago reminiscent of Chicago’s famous Jane Addams Hull House. Hull House  slowly ceased its idealistic settlement-house ethos in 1935 with the passing of Jane Addams and again with University of Illinois purchase of its then 13 Hull House buildings. But the David Tom Settlement House carries on the tradition.

Like the original Hull House, it offers staff the opportunity to live in the community so as to better understand and assist those they serve. The David Tom Settlement House provides living accommodations for the three colleagues who not only cared for Mr. Tom, but with their help also continues to offer social services, education, and advocacy for the surrounding neighborhood in which they live – just as Jane Addams did 120 years earlier. David Tom Settlement House was named to immortalize the memory of Mr. Tom’s tragedy and serve as a reminder so that similar injustices related to inter-ethnic misunderstanding never can happen again.

David Tom Settlement House was named to immortalize the memory of this tragedy and to serve as a reminder so that similar injustices related to ethnic misunderstanding never can happen again.

Photo: Peter Porr, San O, David Tom

Peter Porr, San O, David Tom

Peter, San and Run-Hao want to share some of their life together with David whom they came to love and enjoy :

David loved being driven around town in the “Oldsmobile” (actually SEAC’s old Toyota Camry) and especially loved to visit Chinatown where he remembered living on 22nd (Cermak since 1933) and Wentworth before his odyssey began. It took some time, but Peter, San and Run-Hao were eventually able to take David to restaurants where he was finally able to eat quietly and contentedly (most of the time) without the outbursts of old. Babies were another of David’s delights, and the mere sight of a baby in a mother’s arms or passing in a stroller brought a spontaneous smile to his face usually accompanied by a chuckle to boot.

Despite the psychiatrists’ underestimation of David’s intellect, David once directed Run-Hao, an immigrant herself, how to get to City Hall near where he himself worked as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant downtown on Madison and Dearborn 60 some years prior. While walking on the street downtown, David recognized and greeted and offered his hand to Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy who had been his savior in court years before.

Peter enjoyed driving everyone on short weekend sight-seeing trips as well as a few long-distance adventures as far as Nova Scotia, Canada. On a trip to the unfamiliar hills of Rockford, Illinois, David surprised all blurting out loudly, “Heem-a-laya San” meaning Himilaya Mountians. We had no idea of David’s geographical wisdom. In fact, during one of David’s hospital stays as he was coming out of a “semi-comatose” state, Peter showed David a dime to test his alertness. “Who’s that?” Peter asked. David responded, “Rooo-se-velt.” Elated with David’s recovery and intelligent answer, Peter asked the immigrant doctor the same question. He graciously admitted that David must be smarter than he.

David was a fan of classical Cantonese opera as well as 1950s and 60s oldies, all of which he would occasionally sing along with.  He once sang, “Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by…”  [Number 3 on the charts in 1956] while walking past the nursing station with his hospital gown flying open in the back –eliciting a round of laughter and providing a light moment for the nurses. “Que Sera Sera” [translated as “What will be, will be,” also famous in 1956] was also one of David’s favorites that has a sad ring of truth for his own life.

While Mr. David Tom’s experience was extreme — immigrants and refugees who speak limited English face potential issues of miscommunication, mistreatment, and underappreciation of their inner selves. Result — wasted talents and denial of access to rights, liberties, benefits, services, and happiness itself. As countless young adults with potential productivity and self-fulfillment, David’s loss was a loss to us all.

It is the mission of South-East Asia Center to build bridges of understanding and communication between peoples of Old World and New World cultures thereby contributing to a more harmonious, peaceful, and self-fulfilled world.


Let’s Not Lose the Message from David’s Tragedy

All of us can help by: 

  1. understanding how mental illness can be prevented or ameliorated;
  2. understanding signs of mental illness;
  3. treating people with mental disabilities with respect and compassion for the struggles that they endure;
  4. welcoming, embracing, and involving people with mental disabilities in our lives with love rather than exclusion, isolation, confinement, and repulsion;
  5. recognizing that most people with disabilities enjoy the same kind of pleasures of life as most of us do such as eating, singing, joking, playing, getting hugs, holding babies, and doing something useful;
  6. being alert to the special vulnerabilities of immigrants, refugees, victims of war, tragedy or trauma, non- and limited-English speakers, and people raised in very different non-Western cultures;
  7. lending emotional support to those in stress;
  8. referring those with symptoms or stress or illness to their doctor, hospital, teacher, school counselor, principal, librarian, social worker, workplace assistance, or other relevant professionals;
  9. providing interpretation or guidance as needed;
  10. urging legislators, hospitals, schools, ethnic agencies to be more sensitive and proactive in addressing the needs of the mentally ill and those with limited English ability and to recognize the tragic consequences of inaction.

SEE MENTAL HEALTH – Wellness for ImmigrantsInfographic



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