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Leonard Louie Dead: Chinatown Booster 'Did Things Quietly and Humbly'

By Casey Cora | November 8, 2013 7:46am
 Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets Chinatown's Leonard Louie at the October 2013 debut of the community field house at Ping Tom Memorial Park.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel greets Chinatown's Leonard Louie at the October 2013 debut of the community field house at Ping Tom Memorial Park.
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

CHINATOWN —  When the community gathered for the ribbon cutting at the new field house at Ping Tom Memorial Park last month, virtually everyone who packed into the gymnasium that afternoon posed for a picture with Leonard Louie.

Louie, confined to a wheelchair, and his wife, Elaine, smiled for nearly an hour’s worth of group photos, shook hundreds of hands and were given a commemorative plaque by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Yet hardly anyone knew the 78-year-old had recently stopped receiving treatments for the cancer that plagued him for years, or that the ceremony would double as a quiet victory lap for a civic pioneer whose time was almost up.

“You hear anecdotes all the time about people who know death is imminent and they hang on for one reason or another,” said Sharon Louie Ohlson, one of Louie’s three daughters. “I had told my mom to be prepared because this was the last thing he needed to see accomplished … that as soon as he sees this ribbon cutting he can finally rest.”

Louie, a longtime civic leader who fought for decades to bring a public park and field house to Chinatown, died Sunday of complications from lung cancer.

He was born in China and came to the United States when he was just 3 years old, with his family first making a short stay in California before settling into Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood.

Although his work as an engineer for big tech companies would take him all over the world, Louie’s heart was never far from the neighborhood, friends and family said.

An obituary authored by friend and colleague C.W. Chan traces Louie's community stewardship back to the 1959, when a friend asked for his help raising money for what would become St. Therese Chinese Catholic School.

Louie agreed, and he’d go on to spend most of his Sundays running a fundraising bingo game. He then founded the St. Therese school board and served as its president until 1970, while also serving as president of the parish council.

After retiring from the private sector, Louie co-founded the business group that helped transform a rail yard into the Chinatown Square housing and retail development.

He also served two terms as president of the Chinese American Civic Council of Chicago and as a longtime board member of the Chinese American Service League and the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, along with several other civic groups that championed the causes of Asian Americans.

Three consecutive Illinois governors named him to their Asian American Advisory Councils. 

But Louie is probably best known for his tireless activism in replacing the Chinatown parks that were bulldozed during the 1962 construction of the South Route, now known at the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Together with a litany of Chinatown civic groups, Louie pressured the city for decades to bring a park back to the community. That dream was realized with the 1999 debut of Ping Tom Memorial Park along the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Another 14 years would pass before the highly anticipated construction of a field house began just northeast of the park. It opened to rave reviews on Oct. 13.

Louie Ohlson and her sisters flew in from the West Coast to be at the debut ceremony. None of the siblings, she said, knew the extent of his commitment to making the field house a reality until recently, when community leaders — many of them complete strangers — said their father was like a mentor to them.

"It wasn't as if he took an active role in mentoring. He did things quietly and humbly and that's where I think he learned his effectiveness," she said. "He showed everybody that if you believe in something you can make it happen."

Visitation is scheduled for 2-9 p.m. Friday at Dalcamo Funeral Home, 470 W. 26th St. Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church, 218 W. Alexander St. Interment will follow at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Stickney.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Chinese American Service League, St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church, Chinese American Civic Council of Chicago and/or the Chinatown Museum Foundation.