To say you’re from Atlantic City, you have to be born and raised there. Except if you were Jim Whelan. He was the exception because the people of Atlantic City were proud to claim him as their own. He loved the city as much as it loved him. They both left their mark on each other.
Born in his beloved West Philadelphia, the proud Temple University graduate found his way to Atlantic City and never looked back. He took on every opportunity for service, from beach patrol to City Council to mayor during a time of great prosperity and growth to finally the Legislature as an assemblyman and state senator when the city so greatly needed a voice in Trenton.
Atlantic City is a town of legendary stories and Jim knew them all. Once he started to talk about his city, it was time to take a seat and listen. Professor Whelan was teaching. I had the honor and privilege to be one of his students.
For almost six years, I worked for, with, and alongside a man who spent over three decades as a giant in the rough and tumble world of New Jersey politics and a figure larger than life in South Jersey. I could tell stories about Jim almost as long as those he told about Atlantic City, but for now, I’ll just share a few memories.
In 2011, when I served as communications director on his re-election campaign, we were fighting it out in a tight race against an incumbent assemblyman. For a long time it was a neck and neck. But I remember vividly the day in early September 2011 when I knew Jim Whelan wasn’t going to lose this race or any other ever again.
While on Iowa Avenue in Atlantic City with a film crew taping for a television commercial, Jim approached three African-American teenagers skateboarding in the street with his signature “hey, how we doing?” catch phrase. They stopped and paused for a minute, looked at him, and just said, “Aren’t you Mr. Whelan?” Seconds later, the kids who had been startled by strangers with cameras were talking with us like they’d known Jim for years.
I realized right then what a truly special guy Jim was. He was beloved in Atlantic County not because he was an elected official, but because he was a sincere, no-nonsense, guy who connected with his community. The people knew Jim and Jim knew the people. He only cared about one thing – our region and the people in it.
Although I admired Jim’s advocacy in the State House and engagement in the community, my fondest moments were right in our legislative office. It was my own story time with Professor Whelan. My colleagues and I would sit with Jim at his desk and he’d tell us stories of the yester years of Atlantic City. From the former Atlantic City mob to politics, to the Boardwalk Empire days, Whale, as he was affectionately called, was an Atlantic City encyclopedia.
Not everyone who works in politics has the opportunity to say you work with a leader who you genuinely like as a person. I’m fortunate that I can say that about Jim Whelan, Vince Mazzeo, and now Jim’s successor in the Senate, Colin Bell. Senator Jim Whelan was a rare breed. He was a giant in the neighborhoods of Atlantic City and the halls of the Statehouse. His memory will live on in his many accomplishments and the lives he touched, from the kids he taught to swim to the generations of Atlantic County residents who are better off because they knew and were served by him.
Rest easy, Jim, we miss you already.
Marshall Spevak is the Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). Over the past two terms, Assemblyman Mazzeo and Senator Whelan have shared a joint legislative office in Atlantic County.
A public memorial will be held for the late Senator Whelan at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Thursday. The family will receive guests from 10:00am-11:30am followed by the service at 11:30am. For more information contact Sen. Whelan’s office at (609) 383-1388 or email SenWhelan@njleg.org.