ATLANTIC CITY — Despite being born in Philadelphia, late state Sen. Jim Whelan’s heart belonged to his adopted home.
Whelan was remembered Thursday as a person who had an incredible passion for Atlantic City and worked to make it better as a teacher, lifeguard and lawmaker.
“Everything about Jim was Atlantic City,” state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said during a memorial service at Boardwalk Hall. “Anytime you talked to him, it was about improving Atlantic City.”
During the 90-minute event, speaker after speaker, 13 of them, reflected on Whelan’s life and his impact on the state and the city. About 2,000 people attended the event.
“One of Jim’s biggest accomplishments was shedding the label of shoobie,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner joked. “Never in the history of Atlantic County has anyone outside the boundaries of this county been embraced as our own as Jim Whelan.”
Whelan, 68, died Aug. 22 after suffering a heart attack. He had undergone surgery earlier this summer to remove a cancerous growth from his kidneys and had experienced complications from medications, but he had been home recovering.
“I know that he always wanted to be referred to as mayor because of his love for the city,” said Ed Rendell, former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania. “Our leaders today have to follow Jim’s way and take risks. He made things better for the residents of Atlantic City and South Jersey.”
The former lifeguard and Atlantic City School District teacher served as the resort’s mayor from 1990 to 2001. He was elected to the state Assembly in 2005, then won a state Senate seat in 2007, winning re-election twice.
For Norman Draper, 71, the event offered a chance to honor his fellow Atlantic City Beach Patrol alumnus and longtime friend. Draper met “Whale,” as friends called Whelan, while taking the lifeguard test in 1964.
“We struck up a friendship immediately ’cause we were the tall guys,” said Draper, wearing his Atlantic City Beach Patrol T-shirt. “He was a great friend to both me and the city.”
Whelan’s legacy will live on through his dedication to the children of the city, Tyner said.
“His legacy is his constant dedication to the children of Atlantic City,” Tyner said. “He was invested in our success. I say that because I was one of them.”
Whelan helped the city’s youth, not just with swimming, but with life, Tyner said.
The prosecutor recalled a time when Whelan called to ask if he would call someone who was getting ready to start the final semester of college to offer his support.
“He did this with different kids over the years,” Tyner said. “Part of the deal was that they would have to come and find me and tell me what they hoped to achieve and most importantly repay the favor. The children of Atlantic City, the ones that need help, he was among their biggest advocates.”
Rosalind Norrell-Nance, a City Council president during Whelan’s time as mayor, said Whelan always made time for the children of the city.
“When we were considering a project, we would list the pros and cons and how it impacted children of the city, “ Norrell-Nance said. “Jim always thought how projects would impact the children and their future employment.”