UH Med Now
In Memoriam: Dr. Wallace Chun, “Sweet Potato King,” JABSOM MD alumnus
Pictured: After playing Mah Jong with his family, Dr. Wallace Chun raises the hand of the victor, his eldest daughter Dorothy. Photos courtesy of the Chun family.
By Thomas Chun, JABSOM ’91 MD, MPH and his siblings.
Wallace Kin Cho Chun grew up in Kalihi, the youngest of 6 kids. His father was a house painter and his mother a homemaker. He liked to joke that he was “a high school dropout,” so he could enlist in the U.S. Army in the waning months of World War II. While he did indeed drop out, he was awarded his diploma, due to his good academic standing, through the efforts and petitioning of one of his formative and kind teachers, Mrs. Helen Cunningham. After achieving the rank of Technician 3rd Grade and being discharged from the service, he attended the University of Chicago for two years on the G.I. bill, as the first person from his family to attend college. He subsequently completed his bachelors and masters degree in plant pathology at the University of Hawaiʻi.
Upon completing his graduate studies, he married his Farrington High School sweetheart, Theresa Tung Chin Siu. While interested in medicine since he was a teen, with no opportunity to attend medical school in Hawaiʻi at the time, they started their married life and began our family as Waimānalo farmers. My mom said his nickname was “The Sweet Potato King,” for his perfectly shaped and unblemished wares. When the chance to be a U.S. Department of Agriculture plant quarantine inspector arose, he took the job and worked at both the Honolulu airport and a 4 year stint in Hilo. He also collaborated with a local entrepreneur, Ron Diesseroth, to found the first commercial fresh mushroom farm in the islands, in an abandoned Army bunker tunneled into the side of the Koʻolaus in Kaneohe.
When JABSOM opened in 1967, my father saw the chance to pursue his dream and applied for admission. He often spoke of his deep gratitude and profound debt to Dean Terrence Rogers, for taking a chance on a 39 year old applicant with 9 kids at the time, ranging in age from 3 to 14 years old. He reminisced fondly of his time taking classes at Leʻāhi Hospital, being voted “class historian,” and how much he learned from one of his lifelong mentors and role models, Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, through his high expectations and meticulous yet compassionate style
Even as we were living though this part of our lives, we kids knew our parents were doing something special and unusual. With the passage of time, our appreciation and amazement for what they were able to accomplish has only grown. My mom was a Public Health Nurse at Lanakila. How she kept our family going while my dad was consumed with the rigors of medical school and beyond is something we still hold in awe. They were the products of their time in history, generation, culture, and spirit of ʻohana. Growing up during the depression, they learned to make the most of what they had and a strong work ethic. My mom had already experienced putting a loved one through professional school. When she was younger, she, her single-parent mother, and her two sisters, scrimped and saved to put her two brothers through the University of Michigan’s law school. My parents instilled in us those values of frugality and hard work. While my dad was in school, my older siblings contributed to keeping our family afloat through multiple paper routes. It was truly a family effort.
Back then JABSOM was a 2 year, pre-clinical school, with my dad and his classmates dispersing to the mainland for their third and fourth years. This took us to San Francisco, where he graduated from UCSF, and started his Psychiatry residency. A keiki o ka ‘āina, he moved back to Hawaiʻi in 1973 to complete his residency at JABSOM. His first years post-residency were spent working at the ʻAiea Mental Health Clinic, a private practice in Kāhala, and for the local suicide hotline. He followed that with 3 decades of federal government service, first as a civilian in the U.S. Army Hospital in Nuremberg, Germany, then at the VA in Honolulu. After retiring from the VA, he served as a consultant to the Hawaiʻi Medicaid Quest program, finally stepping down at the ripe young age of 85.
When asked why he stayed in medicine for as long as he did, my dad said making the most of the opportunity he had been given and paying back were important to him. He knew a concern that some had when he applied to JABSOM was that he wouldn’t be able to practice as long as a younger person could. He felt that his career which spanned 40 years was one of the ways he could live up to and repay the faith Dean Rogers showed in him. Giving back to the community and to JABSOM were equally near and dear to his heart. He enjoyed working with medical students and residents, and served on the admissions committee. He also valued and treasured his JABSOM friendships, reconnecting with Drs. George Chu, David Horio, and Roy Wong, at formal gatherings like their 50th reunion last year, or informally at a favorite seafood buffet.
My siblings and I would like to extend a special mahalo to Dr. Horio, for the inspiration and opportunity to write this memorial, and to reflect on our dad, and mom’s — this remembrance would be incomplete without her – lives. We’re thankful and grateful to have had them in our lives, for their boundless love, perseverance, and patience, and for all the values they instilled in us.