State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who spent more than 30 years in public life, died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack at his home in Atlantic City, according to a statement issued Wednesday by his office.
He was 68.
"Up until the moment he passed, Jim was doing what he loved, talking about his beloved City of Atlantic City," according to a statement Wednesday from Whelan's office.
"After ordering subs from his favorite White House Sub Shop, he was at his house ready to talk to a Netflix documentary crew about Atlantic City when he passed. His passing was quick, and he felt no pain," according to the statement.
A memorial service will be held in Atlantic City in the coming weeks and details will be forthcoming, according to the statement.
Whelan, a former Atlantic City School District teacher, was Atlantic City’s mayor from 1990 to 2001. He also served on the City Council and was a member of both the Assembly and state Senate.
Flags at city hall have been lowered to half staff in honor of Whelan, officials said. Mayor Don Guardian has also asked that flags at the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the city's school district be lowered to half staff.
Whelan underwent surgery to remove cancerous cells from his kidney in early July at the University of Pennsylvania, according to his Facebook page.
The surgery was a success, but Whelan experienced complications from blood thinners, he said in a July 31 post on his Facebook page.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian always appreciated Whelan’s guidance when he first became mayor and said Whelan showed him the ropes during his first few months.
“He took me under his wing like a big brother. Jim dedicated his whole life to public service to Atlantic City whether serving as a lifeguard, a coach and teacher, councilman, mayor or state senator. I will keep him and his family in my prayers. May he rest in peace,” Guardian said.
Gov. Chris Christie said Whelan’s sudden and unexpected death is an enormous loss to the people of Atlantic City, his district and all of the state.
“During my eight years in Trenton, I came to know Jim as a forthright and honest leader whose word was his bond. While we did not always agree on policy, he was always willing to listen and reason together. The current comeback of Atlantic City is due in no small part to the efforts and passion of Jim Whelan,” Christie said.
Whelan, originally from Philadelphia, began his public career as an Atlantic City lifeguard more than 50 years ago.
He has served as an Atlantic City Council member, mayor of his adopted city and now the state senator for most of Atlantic County.
In an interview with The Press of Atlantic City in January, Whelan, who had opted not to run for another term as state senator, reflected on the close connections between government jobs and politics.
In order to apply for a job on the beach patrol, he said, he had to get a letter signed by the Atlantic City Republican leader. After that, he said, he had to pay a half-day’s salary from each check as tribute to the city’s political machine. “Ice money,” he called it with a chuckle.
An excellent swimmer, Whelan was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1999.
In 1982, Whelan, by then a city resident, had won a City Council seat.
By 1990, he was elected Atlantic City’s mayor. He would win two more terms before he was finished.
He lost office to Lorenzo Langford in a Democratic primary during Atlantic City’s first officially partisan election in 2001.
Four years later, he was elected to the state Assembly in 2005, then won a state Senate seat in 2007. He has been re-elected twice since.
Senate President Steve Sweeney said he was shocked and deeply saddened by Whelan’s untimely passing.
“Jim was a true friend, a confidant and champion for the people of South Jersey and the entire state. He have so much of his life to public service, serving as a teacher, a councilman, a mayor, and for more than a decade in the Legislature fighting for the policies to help improve the lives of the residents of the state,” Sweeney said.
Whelan was rarely one to raise his voice, but was a dogged advocate for Atlantic City, a city he loved dearly, and was determined to see it thrive, Sweeney said.
“He was the author of many of the initiatives that have helped to revitalize Atlantic City and will be remembered for that work for generations to come. He will be missed dearly by all of us who knew him, but his loss will also be felt by the entire state,” Sweeney said.