Years ago, I questioned Jim Whelan as to why he went to so many funerals. He scanned the obituary section of The Press like a hawk and would routinely instruct my colleagues and I to put viewings and memorials on his calendar, even of people he didn’t know all that well. He aptly told me, “Mike, they only bury you once. You can have another kid, you can get remarried, but you only get one funeral. You can’t miss them.” One of the many things Jim Whelan taught me was to “show up” even if you didn’t feel like doing so.
In fact, showing up was one of his three rules of life: be nice to people, show up and do your job. When I would do something stupid, as was often the case, Jim would remind me of the three rules. His maxims, one-liners and colorful anecdotes were a culmination of a fascinating 35-year career in public service and a fulfilling 68-year life (albeit too short) that included swimming, lifeguarding, politics and, most importantly to him, family.
What guided Jim’s life and political career was doing the right thing, even if it was not politically beneficial for him. Rather than Jim trying to avoid falling on the proverbial sword, it was often advisers, friends and confidantes like me who tried to convince Jim not to fall on it. I remember getting into an argument with him for proposing a controversial piece of legislation in an election year, for I was convinced that this bill would give too much ammunition to our opponent that year. Unmoved, Jim simply replied, “If you’re in the right place, the right time will follow.” Another piece of advice from Jim that will always stay with me.
While many of Jim’s successes over the years have received considerable recognition, such as the Brigantine Connector, The Walk, or reforming archaic gaming industry regulations, it is often the victories that weren’t publicized that were his most admirable. The time when he quietly raised money from his friends to help an at-risk teenager attend college and turn his life around comes to mind, or perhaps the time when he cared for an ailing friend who had no living family to turn to. Jim didn’t always care about seeing his name in the paper, he just wanted to see results.
One of the most important things that Jim Whelan did that went unnoticed was his constant desire to mentor others and help guide their lives and careers. I am fortunate and proud to say that I was one of those individuals. Jim made me a well-rounded public servant and a better person. I obtained a graduate degree because I was sick of him telling me yet another of his maxims, “Mike, you don’t want to be the least educated in the room,” and of course he was right. He left his indelible mark on my life and career just as he did so many others.
Jim Whelan the person may have died, but his legacy will live on through all of us who were honored to call him a mentor and a friend. We all owe it to him to be nice to people, show up and do our jobs.
Michael Suleiman, of Galloway Township and a former staffer to Jim Whelan, is the chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee.