Bernarda “Bernie” Wong built the Chinese American Service League from nothing into one of the city’s most important social service organizations by enlisting support from a long line of political and civic leaders who learned she wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to helping her community.
Ms. Wong, 77, died Tuesday from stomach cancer, said her daughter Jacinta Wong.
Known for her diminutive stature — barely 5 feet tall — and big, dynamic personality, Ms. Wong forged relationships with mayors, governors and presidents, always in furtherance of her mission to help the people of Chinatown and other immigrants.
“She’s a tiny little thing. But, if she’s in a room, you know she’s there,” said Obama Foundation president Valerie Jarrett, who got to know Ms. Wong while serving in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.
Cook County Commissioner John Daley said the community had lost a trailblazing pioneer and his family had lost a good friend with Ms. Wong’s death.
“She was very helpful to Rich on his campaigns,” Daley said.
At the same time, Ms. Wong was never shy about aggressively capitalizing on those relationships to get the money she needed for her programs — whether to help seniors, undocumented immigrants, or families needing job training, day care or early childhood education.
Bernarda “Bernie” Wong at the Chinese American Service League in 1989.Sun-Times archives
“She was ahead of her time on all those issues,” John Daley said. “She wouldn’t let down once she decided she wanted something.”
Ms. Wong’s relationship with Jarrett carried through to Barack Obama’s White House, where the president honored Ms. Wong with his “Champions of Change” award.
Ms. Wong, who also knew the Obamas from their days in Chicago, personified the type of person the president had in mind when he created the award, Jarrett said, praising her as an “indefatigable force for good.”
Ms. Wong visited the White House “countless times” during the Obama years, and she “always came with a list of things she thought could be helpful to the community,” which she would present with a “twinkle in her eye,” Jarrett said.
Ms. Wong came to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 18 to attend Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa. She later earned a master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis before moving to Chicago.
In 1978, she was part of a small group that created the Chinese American Service League in the belief the organizations then operating in Chinatown weren’t filling the need and missing out on funding opportunities because of their insular approach. In short, they didn’t want outsiders to know there were poor, needy people in Chinatown.
Then U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, left, and Bernie Wong, president of the Chinese American Service League, clap along as children in the center’s day care sing a welcome song to the secretary, who toured the facility in 2001.Jean Lachat/Sun-Times file
Ms. Wong, who had no such qualms, quickly became the group’s driving force while operating from a small room in the back of a dentist’s office.
Former Chicago television news anchor Linda Yu tells the story of the first time she visited Ms. Wong and found a long line of people waiting seated on the stairs leading up to her tiny office — so great was the need and so few were the resources.
By the time Ms. Wong retired at the end of 2016, the Chinese American Service League had become the largest social service organization serving Asian Americans in the Midwest with a budget of more than $12 million and more than 400 employees, its own community building and a senior residential facility across the street.
Yu became one of the organization’s most dedicated supporters soon after her own arrival in Chicago in 1979.
“The people she was helping were me,” explained Yu, herself an immigrant.
As always, Ms. Wong was persuasive.
“No one can say no to Bernie. She just wouldn’t accept it,” Yu said.
Yu said Ms. Wong was on the job 24/7.
“It wasn’t work to her. She didn’t have any boundaries,” said daughter Jacinta Wong, who recalled without resentment that her mother was sometimes hours late picking her up from school because something came up at work.
No one could say no to Bernarda “Bernie” WongProvided
Jacinta Wong, an only child, said the family would often tease her mother that the Chinese American Service League “was my sibling.”
“She wanted to help everyone,” her daughter said.
Yu marvels at how many tens of thousands Ms. Wong did help over the years.
Ms. Wong’s husband Albert died in 2019. The couple lived in the neighborhood, and Ms. Wong was active in St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church, where she sang in the choir. She is survived by her daughter and two grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 14 at St. Therese, 218 W. Alexander St., with face masks and social distancing required. A Mass for family and close friends only will be offered at the church at 10 a.m. May 15. The family asked that any memorial donations go to the Chinese American Service League or the church.
Although her organization’s needs often aligned Ms. Wong with the powers-that-be, her work on behalf of the undocumented led Ms. Wong to help a younger generation of community leaders buck the political establishment in more recent years.
“When Chinese immigrant youth were fighting for a library and a field house, community elders were nervous about challenging the Democratic Machine,” said Rebecca Shi, an organizer in those campaigns and now executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition. “Bernie Wong was the community leader who supported our youth, and we won a library and a field house.”
That showing of independence led to Chinatown being consolidated into one legislative district and later electing state Rep. Theresa Mah from that district to become the state’s first elected Asian American legislator — again with Ms. Wong’s support.
Mah said Ms. Wong set an example to her on the importance of understanding the needs of her community and pursuing the necessary resources.
“She’s legendary, and it’s going to be a huge loss,” Mah said.