Published On: Mon, Oct 13th, 2014

The Legacy of Susan Whelchel

susan-whelchelBy Quezia Salgado

This year, the month of March brought changes in the government scene of Boca, where former Mayor Susan Whelchel passed on the baton to new Mayor Susan Haynie, who was sworn into office in a ceremony held at City Hall. In the presence of family, friends, and colleagues, Whelchel expressed her gratitude for the support she’s received during her 20 years serving the community. For Whelchel, however, her service as mayor was much more than politics; it was about giving back to the community where she and her family grew up, as well as leaving a legacy of what can be accomplished through hard work and determination, for generations to come.

A Florida native, Whelchel and her family moved to Boca in 1977, due to her husband’s need to live near an international airport because of work, which, at the time, was Miami International. Back then, the state population was at approximately 10 million people, whereas today that number has nearly doubled, and for Whelchel, this was only a matter of time. “There was never any doubt in my mind that this was going to happen,” said Whelchel. “I was a kid in Jacksonville when there were only 3 million people. In 1979, I already knew where the growth was.” When Whelchel first moved to Boca with her husband and four small children, Butts. Rd. was nothing but a dirt road, and there was no Mizner Park. “There was a farm on Military Trail, where people could go pick up their strawberries, beans, etc.,” Whelchel remembers. Whelchel is one of the few people who has been able to witness the growth of Boca Raton through the years.

Because there were no elementary schools in the Timber Creek zone, where the family lived, Whelchel was left with one of two choices, either send her kindergarten-age kids to Spady in Delray, which was a bit of a drive, or put them in private church schools. She chose the latter and everything turned out great. For Whelchel choosing the best schools for her children was always a priority. As a former teacher, she knew the importance of keeping kids grounded and placing them in an educational environment where they could grow and develop intellectually.

Many of her students would come back to see Whelchel after graduating high school and going off to college, and she would always as why they don’t want to come back to Boca. The students would reply: “We want to get corporate jobs, and go where there are greater educational opportunities for our children than what they have in Boca; we want to go somewhere where there’s a better medical situation.” Upon hearing this numerous times, Whelchel decided in 1995, when she was recruited to run for city council, that her plan would be, among other things, to create a better and stronger educational environment in Boca Raton. “If I had gotten into politics in 1976, at 39 years old, I don’t know that I would have known what the plan should be; but in 1995 I knew my role; I felt like I had a vision and a role to play, and I tried to play it just as much as a council person and as a mayor,” Whelchel reflects.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Whelchel made to Boca was based on her knowledge and passion to improve the city’s education. “One of the components of a world-class community is the education system and having been a school teacher, and serving on the Palm Beach School Board for two years, I understood that,” said Whelchel. One of the first steps she took after becoming a member of the city council was to demand the hiring of an internal school liaison. The person chosen was Susan Saxton, whose job was to go to every school board meeting, and to all the schools to find out what they didn’t have, but had a right to have. This way, over a period of six to seven years, the school system in Boca was methodically changed. Through Whelchel’s initiative and Saxton’s hard work, the city was able to get more attention drawn to the schools, and in addition they were able to build the city’s first magnet school, Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, which sits on the property where the first IBM building was built. “It was one step at a time to build a world-class educational system and over the years we’ve been able to do that,” Whelchel observes.

Whelchel was aware from the beginning that Boca would continue to grow, so her plan was to develop it into a world-class city, and she knew full well what elements were required to achieve that goal. With a clear-cut vision, Whelchel wrote her story into the records as Mayor of Boca by working to create a city that reaches the highest standard in terms of quality of life. The term “world-class city” received extensive use during her mandate, and as she explains, it means, among other things, having corporations establish their headquarters in the community in order to offer the types of jobs young professionals are looking for, so that they choose to stay in Boca.

When Whelchel took office as Mayor in 2008, she said in her speech: “My goal is to create internal to the city, a business development program, and we should be funding and giving incentive money, and creating easy permitting, and getting corporations to understand that we are developing into a world-class city.” Looking back to that day, there is no doubt in her mind that this goal has been fulfilled. All the makings were in place; all that was left was someone with a clear vision and strong leadership skills to see things through.

When she stepped down from her job as mayor, Whelchel was convinced that she did her best to improve the city she loves into the world-class city she envisioned from the start. Although the work is not complete and changes and developments will continue to happen for years to come, there is no doubt that Boca is a better place because of Susan Whelchel, and she will certainly go down in history as the mayor who took the initial steps in creating the world-class city Boca Raton is known as today.


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