ATLANTIC CITY — They came from all over. Politicians from the left and the right. Businesspeople, educators, schoolchildren.
Some walked from surrounding neighborhoods. Many drove or were driven, some in limos. Others boarded jets to get there.
Some of them the onetime lifeguard had saved from drowning — at the Shore or in choppy political seas.
They numbered more than 1,000, standing in a line that snaked from the Boardwalk into the main stage area of cavernous Boardwalk Hall — more than the length of two city blocks — to pay their final respects Thursday to state senator and former Atlantic City Mayor Jim Whelan. Speakers at the public memorial service lauded him as a family man, educator, and accomplished public servant.
Whelan, 68, a Democrat who served as mayor of Atlantic City for three terms before being elected a state legislator, died of a heart attack at his home Aug. 22. He had undergone surgery earlier in the summer to remove cancerous growths from his kidneys, and he was preparing for an interview with a Netflix documentary crew when the fatal attack occurred.
Born in West Philadelphia and a graduate of Temple University, Whelan had long summered with his family in Atlantic City before moving permanently to the resort to take a job as a schoolteacher. During his time in office, both locally and in the state Legislature, Whelan is credited with helping bring to fruition the $300 million Atlantic City Expressway Connector project and development of the so-called H-tract — a former landfill — where the Borgata was eventually built.
Whelan, who had decided not to run for reelection this year, is survived by his wife, Kathy, and stepson, Richard.
More than a dozen speakers during 90 minutes of tributes noted Whelan's dedication to public service — especially to Atlantic City — spanning more than four decades. The senator's family received mourners prior to the service. The memorial included an invocation by a Catholic priest, a national anthem solo by a local policeman, an Atlantic City Police Color Guard, and the Atlantic City High School Choir singing "Amazing Grace." The afternoon ended with an old-fashioned Irish wake at the Irish Pub on St. James Place.
"He was just a good guy who cared a whole lot, and he made this a better place for it," said State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) during the memorial. Sweeney said he will introduce legislation to rename Boardwalk Hall in Whelan's honor, calling it "Senator Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall."
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said that when he was elected to the office in 2013, Whelan acted as a mentor.
"He stood tall in Atlantic City … and it had nothing to do with his height, but with the content of his character," Guardian said of the 6-foot-6 Whelan, who, as a young man, spent 19 years as a city lifeguard, helping to rescue an estimated 1,000 people from difficulties in the water.
Guardian said Whelan also taught more than 900 children how to swim. One summer day, along with his best friend and co-lifeguard, Bob Levy — also a former mayor, to whom Whelan was "Whales" — he helped save 87 people from drowning.
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James J. "Sonny" McCullough, whom Whelan defeated in running for McCullough's state Senate seat in 2008, called his former political rival "a fair and honest guy."
McCullough, a Republican, recounted how, days before the election, he had fired a political consultant who had put forth the idea of hiring an actor to pose as Whelan in middle-of-the-night robo calls to voters.
"I just couldn't get involved with doing something like that. … Jim wasn't like that," McCullough said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Panama William J. Hughes Sr., a Democrat who served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1995, representing New Jersey's Second District, told the crowd that it was Whelan's ability to extend himself across political lines, to be "tolerant of the views of others," that ultimately made him a beloved figure in regional politics.
"He is being honored today not just for getting the job done, but for his ability to maintain his civility while accomplishing that job," Hughes said. "It's a civility that is lacking in the body politic today. In his honor, it is our responsibility to continue that legacy."
Jim Allen, president and CEO of Hard Rock International, which plans to open a hotel and casino in Atlantic City's former Trump Taj Mahal by Memorial Day weekend in 2018, said he had known Whelan since the 1980s.
"Hard Rock International is going to invest $500 million in Atlantic City and create thousands of jobs. … Make no mistake, that never would have happened if it wasn't for Jim Whelan," Allen said. "He was truly a great man who operated with honesty and integrity at a time when those things are very rare."
Rita Mack, a businesswoman who attended the memorial but didn't speak at the service, agreed with Allen's assessment.
"He was just so much a part of this town. … The salt and sand was in his veins," said Mack, who owns two McDonald's restaurants in Atlantic City. "He was someone who truly understood Atlantic City and how to get things done here. He's going to be very much missed."
Dan Heneghan, a spokesman for the New Jersey Casino Control Commission and former writer at the Press of Atlantic City, called his late friend "the patron saint of Atlantic City."