David Tom arrived in San Francisco as a stowaway from China in 1949, along with his brother seeking greater opportunity in the U.S. He worked in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco for a year, then came to Chicago to work at restaurants here and live in Chinatown.
But his pursuit of the American Dream was thwarted when Mr. Tom contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium for treatment. An incident there led to a diagnosis of mental illness — now believed to be a mistaken assessment — and a 31-year commitment in a mental institution that ended only after a protracted legal battle to win his freedom.
Mr. Tom, 84, died Saturday, Aug. 16, in his home at the South-East Asia Center in Chicago, after recently suffering a stroke.
Throughout his confinement, no one spoke to Mr. Tom in a language he understood. His cause was taken up by then-Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy. Murphy, now a Cook County judge, secured Mr. Tom's release in 1983 and prevailed in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of Illinois.
"Every mental health expert who testified, including our own, opined that because of what happened to David in his three decades of captivity, he could never live outside the institution," Murphy wrote in a recent email to the Tribune.
Even after Mr. Tom had won his freedom, it appeared he might remain institutionalized because his condition had deteriorated over the years. But a Chicago couple, Peter Porr and San O, who operate a community house in the Uptown/Edgewater area to work with and teach Indo-Chinese immigrants, volunteered their help and had Mr. Tom come live with them.
"I think that gradually we'll be able to reteach him things and make him less afraid of the world," Porr told the Tribune in 1983, shortly after Mr. Tom moved in with them. "This is the place for him to be."
Mr. Tom not only adjusted to his new environment, but over the years he thrived, Porr said.
"David was a cherished member of our family, who taught us many things," said Porr, who taught English in Vietnam in the 1970s. "Most importantly, he taught us that he was a person like anyone else with feelings and desires and hopes and needs. He got happy and excited. He got sad and upset. He laughed and he cried. He loved babies, the outdoors and on most days, depending on his mood swings, the company of those who loved him.
"There was a sweetness and innocence about him and he had an uncanny ability to make friends."
Mr. Tom's ordeal began when he contracted tuberculosis in 1952 and was sent to a hospital. A female aide attempted to give him a sponge bath, and Mr. Tom threw the sheet off him and raced naked through the building shouting "incomprehensively," which hospital officials viewed as a threatening act, according to newspaper accounts.
Mr. Tom was then shipped to a state mental institution on the Northwest Side, where he was diagnosed as having had "a psychotic reaction, unclassified type." In September 1952, according to Murphy, a nurse on his unit noted that he "speaks English very poorly and it is difficult to understand him. He says: 'This nut house. Why am I here?'"
By the late 1970s, Mr. Tom was using the floor as a toilet, stripping off his clothes and doing little except lying on the floor, according to the court records.
But — Murphy noted in arguing the case for Mr. Tom's freedom — one physician finally realized what was going on and wrote:
"No one has ever talked to him because no one knows what Chinese dialect he speaks. There is no way to document a psychosis in him at the present time, nor is there any way to either document or rule out mental retardation. I find this a highly uncomfortable and unfortunate situation. I have the impression that there is a legal problem involved in having a man hospitalized over this period of time with no one ever having been able to communicate with him."
The process to gain his release began in 1979. Murphy declared himself Mr. Tom's legal guardian and filed suit in U.S. District Court charging the state had violated Mr. Tom's civil rights. In May 1983, a jury awarded Mr. Tom $400,000. Murphy agreed to accept $205,000 to avoid lengthy appeals by the state.
Mr. Tom, who was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia, was set to move to a private nursing home operated by Chinese-Americans who spoke his language, according to a Tribune story at the time. But that changed after the public guardian's office reached out to Porr and O to see if they could help.
By late December 1983, Mr. Tom had settled into a two-room living space at the community house the couple operated at 4707 N. Broadway. Over the years, he became a much beloved figure around the center, now located at 1124-1134 W. Ainslie St.
"He was surrounded by people who loved him and he was at peace with himself," Porr said. "He had finally found his home."
There were no known immediate survivors.
Services were held.