Chinatown leader helped establish Ping Tom Park
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter November 11, 2013 7:26PM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel presents a plaque to community leader Leonard Louie October 14, 2013 for his lifetime of service to the Chinatown community. | Patrick Pyszka / City of Chicago
Updated: December 13, 2013 6:28AM
When Leonard M. Louie was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago, his daughters encouraged him to move closer to their homes in California or Colorado.
But Mr. Louie said no, he had a few more things to do in Chicago.
At the top of the list was getting a new fieldhouse for Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park, 1700 S. Wentworth.
He lived long enough to attend last month’s opening of the 30,000-square-foot fieldhouse, with its six-lane,9-foot-deep indoor pool, outdoor patio and fitness center. It was the culmination of a long campaign.
“When I started fighting for this thing, I had children,” he told WBEZ radio in 2011. “And I think today my grandchildren are old enough to be able to use it. That’s how long it’s been.”
The 78-year-old Mr. Louie died Nov. 3 at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center.
Born in the city of Hoi Ping in China’s southern Kwangtung province, Mr. Louie’s parents immigrated to the U.S. and settled with their nine children in Chicago’s Chinatown. Mr. Louie was the second youngest child.
Their anchor was St. Therese Chinese Catholic School, 247 W. 23rd St. “St. Therese was really helpful in helping their large family get settled here in terms of helping them find housing, in helping the children all get American names, and get them into school,” said Mr. Louie’s daughter, Sharon Ohlson.
In the early 1960s, the only parks near Chinatown — Hardin Square and Stanford Park — were demolished to make way for the Dan Ryan Expy.
“When he was a youngster, he could go to the park and play basketball. Then the park was taken away from our community,” said his friend and fellow Chinatown leader, Raymond Lee. “Then they had no place to go.”
“If he had hung out with you at the old Hardin Square Park as a young man, he had probably dreamed about hanging out with you again in the new Chinatown fieldhouse,” his friend C.W. Chan, head of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, wrote in his eulogy.
“His life mission was to rebuild the park,” Lee said.
Mr. Louie graduated from Tilden Technical High School and studied electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where his roommate, Raymond Lee, was a fellow emigre from Hoi Ping. “We ate a lot of instant noodles” as broke college students, Lee said. Sometimes they kicked in money to some Chinese neighbors so they could join them for a good meal at their table.
He worked for Teletype Corporation for 30 years until his 1992 retirement, passing up promotions and transfers so he could raise his family in Chinatown.
In addition to his work on the Ping Tom Park Advisory Council, he co-founded the Chinese American Development Corporation, which worked to acquire 32 acres of railroad land that expanded Chinatown, adding new homes, stores and restaurants, including Chinatown Square mall.
He was active with the Chinese American Civic Council, the Chinese American Service League and the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community.
Three governors — James R. Thompson, Jim Edgar and George H. Ryan — appointed him to their Asian-American advisory council, Chan said.
He also ran bingo games at the neighborhood St. Therese School, founded its school board and served as president, Chan said.
Ping Tom Park opened in 1999. With its picturesque open-air, pagoda-style pavilion, it has become a destination for summertime outdoor movies, dragon boat races and group Tai Chi exercises.
At the opening of the park fieldhouse last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented Mr. Louie with a plaque to thank him for his community service.
Mr. Louie loved ribeye steak, fried onions and prime rib. He had a white Cadillac that he babied for 17 years.
He enjoyed golf and driving vacations to amusement parks, including Kings Island in Ohio, many Six Flags parks and Disney World. He particularly loved the roller coasters, and would join his grandchildren on the rides, even if they wanted to repeat them for a fourth or fifth time, Sharon Ohlson said.
He always followed Illini football and attended the bowl games. His daughter tucked an “Illini Dad” T-shirt into his casket.
Mr. Louie is also survived by his wife of 54 years, Elaine; two other daughters, Carole Louie and Lenora Phelps; his sisters, Annette Chow, Lucille Gee, Ruth Kung, Janette Chun, Susan Kotval; his brother, Milton, and seven grandchildren. Services were held.