The stories that stick with us: How a victim of unthinkable tragedy prevailed over his darkest days

  • Tom Burleson, who lost his wife and three children in a 1999 crash caused by a drunken driver, shared his experiences years later.

    Tom Burleson, who lost his wife and three children in a 1999 crash caused by a drunken driver, shared his experiences years later. Daily Herald File Photo, 2002

  • Charles Keeshan

    Charles Keeshan

Updated 10/4/2021 8:19 AM

Tom Burleson had just about every excuse to give up in August 1999, after a drunken driver heading the wrong way on a McHenry County highway slammed into his family's van as they returned home from a day at Great America.

Tom's wife, Eva, and three children -- 14-year-old Daniel, 11-year-old Tiffany and 7-year-old Dallis -- were gone from his life in an instant.


He suffered fractured vertebrae in his upper neck that left him with a small chance of survival and an even smaller chance of ever walking again.

Months of nightmares and painful rehabilitation would follow for the Crystal Lake man. So too did all-consuming anger -- at the other driver, at his bad luck, at God.

But Tom didn't give up. He learned to walk again and then rebuilt his life step by step. And a big part of that was his work to prevent other parents and spouses from having to experience the losses he suffered.

So it was about three years after that tragic night on Route 120 that I met with Tom at the DuPage County Government Complex in Wheaton. He was there to take part in what's known as a Victim Impact Panel, a court-ordered session at which people convicted of driving under the influence listen to how their reckless behavior can forever alter the lives of others.

Tom talked about his family's perfect day at Great America, where the lines weren't too long, the temperature wasn't too hot and the only blemish in the blue sky was an occasional puffy white cloud.

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He told his audience how his family made the trip in a 1964 Volkswagen Microbus he'd bought that summer so he and his oldest son, Daniel, could indulge in a little Summer of Love nostalgia when they traveled to the 1999 Woodstock revival concert.

He recalled how thrilled his youngest daughter, Dallis, was when she managed to squeeze the very top of her head over the height restriction sign on the American Eagle and got her first ride on a "big person" roller coaster.

"It was the happiest I'd ever seen her," he told his audience. "One hour later, she was dead."

Having covered police and courts for much of my 24 years at the Daily Herald, reporting on people experiencing tragedy is an unfortunate, but routine, part of the job. You never quite get used to the suffering of others, and you definitely don't become numb to it, but you accept that dealing with people who are grieving a loss -- whether it be the loss of a loved one, of their sense of security or of their freedom -- is an almost daily occurrence.

More than two decades after I first reported on Tom's loss, his story continues to stay with me. Not just because of the tremendous tragedy he endured, but the vast courage and perseverance he showed in the years that followed, and how he used his loss to help others avoid the same devastation.

"I hope I'm touching people," Tom told me back in 2002. "I don't want another parent to bury a child the way I had to."

• Weekend Editor Charles Keeshan started working for the Daily Herald in 1997.

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