Much of the credit for the realism in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath belongs to this man. Collins was the manager of the real life Weedpatch government camp. He accompanied Steinbeck on his trips to Oklahoma. Steinbeck's fictional white-clad camp manager was based directly on his observations of Tom Collins.

Collins was reportedly very similar to the way that Steinbeck described him. He was unusually talented as resolving conflicts between campers withough injuring the dignity of either party. He was especially sensitive to the embarassment of farm people who were unaccustomed to technological advances like indoor toilet and stall showers. The anecdote about the woman washing her husband's pants in a toilet while complaining that the wash basin was too low and made her back sore really happened and was documented sympathically by Collins.

He was also an amateur sociologist. The reports he sent to the Farm Security Administration were peppered with observations of people's behavior, detailed accounts of events like weddings and funerals, transcriptions of folk songs, and his own ideas about what the term "Okie" meant to the residents.

Tom Collins eventually left his job managing the Weedpatch Camp to supervise the opening of other government camps in California. Steinbeck dedicated a chapter of The Grapes of Wrath to Collins. The dedication is often mistakenly associated with Tom Joad, one of the characters in the book.