Late Boca Mayor Whelchel leaves ‘legacy of love’ to friends, family, at funeral
By: Dale King
Friends and family of the late Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel paid final respects to the two-term chief executive and loving wife, mother and grandmother at a funeral service Thursday in her favorite house of worship – Grace Community Church on West Camino Real.
Whelchel, 77, who occupied the big chair at City Hall from 2008 until she was term-limited in 2014, passed away Aug. 5, after a valiant battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. The wife of John Whelchel, mother of four and grandmother of 10 would have marked her 78th birthday Aug. 13.
The hour-long memorial that began at 4 p.m. in the church formerly known as First Presbyterian, included prayers, messages, tributes from her children and grandchildren and recollections from her immediate predecessor, former Mayor Steven Abrams.
A graveside ceremony was held prior to the funeral service, said the pastor, the Rev. Jason Whitener.
Among those in the nearly filled-up pews of the simply designed brick church were current Mayor Scott Singer and two other former Boca mayors, Susan Haynie and Bill Smith.
A large photo of Mayor Whelchel was projected on a screen above the altar while cascades of flowers ringed a framed copy of the same portrait below. On that same screen, late in the ceremony, a video showing the life of John and Susan Whelchel during their 52 years of marriage was projected.
Throughout the solemn ceremony that included many breaks for lighter comments, speakers told how Susan Whelchel made Jesus the center of her life.
Her obituary on the Babione Funeral Home webpage said: “Susan put Jesus and family first. She was a long-time member and leader at Grace Community Church. She served as a deacon and elder and served on various committees within the church.”
“Like her sisters, Joanne and Flora, she believed life was an amazing journey and participated passionately in everything that held her interest. As a child she was an amazing water skier and had a love of horses.”
“She was a competitive tennis player at Boca Del Mar, Boca Bath and Tennis and Royal Palm Country Club. She loved books, learning, had a love for dogs, was a marathon bridge player, enjoyed her investment ‘Blush Group’ and played golf to keep in line with her husband, John’s, passion. She [also] enjoyed entertaining and hosting numerous parties.”
Speaking to the audience, Abrams noted that Gov. Ron DeSantis had ordered flags to be posted to half-staff in her honor. Mayor from 2001 to 2007, Abrams said he and Ms. Whelchel took part in some “fierce battles,” but he admired her “perseverance, sincerity and loyalty.”
He recalled how one of Susan’s friends from the town of Starke, Florida, had defined Abrams as Ms. Whelchel’s “mayor-in-law.”
Calling upon her love and admiration for education, Susan Whelchel “was single-handedly responsible” for creating the Don Estridge High-Tech Middle School in Boca Raton, on land once occupied by IBM – and named for one of its executives, said Abrams. He also commended her for working to make Boca Raton a place where high school and college graduates wanted to return home, work and raise a family.
After a few other comments, he offered a sincere “goodbye, Susan. Your legacy lives on.”
Son Matt Whelchel recalled how his mother immediately became active in the community when she and husband John arrived in Boca Raton in 1978. At the time, he said, the city had little to keep young people from moving away after finishing high school. He said his mom, through the years, helped improve upon local opportunities.
Son Jay Whelchel said folks have asked him why his mother got involved in community service around the time she was a teacher at Boca High in the mid-1990s. That position came close to the conclusion of her 30-year career as an educator.
“She had a vision to bring quality education, excellent medical facilities, higher learning opportunities, adequate recreational facilities, public parks and nature centers to the city. She helped Boca achieve its goal in 2015 when Boca Raton was named the 11th best city in the country.”
After recounting her many accomplishments, Jay repeated the question, “Why did my mother get involved in the community?” He paused, looked out to the audience and said, calmly, “She did it for you.”
And he added: “She gave her all to things she believed in, and in laying the groundwork for the next generation.”
In her time, Whelchel has been both a Boca Raton City Council member, head of the Community Redevelopment Agency, a Palm Beach County School Board member and mayor.
During her 2011 mayoral campaign, as covered by this writer, the city’s chief executive put job creation and economic recovery at the top of her list of priorities. Mayor Whelchel also staunchly refused to raise taxes and fought to responsibly cut the municipal budget in response to the national economic downturn of 2008-2009.
“We have proven that a back-to-basics approach works in this new economic reality, and I will continue to drive a bold, common-sense agenda for the next three years,” she told this reporter in 2011.
By that same time, she had long been a supporter of environmentally sustainable or “green” technology, particularly in the construction of buildings and use of green space around the city.
Daughters Joanne Jackson and Kristy Hartofilis offered a softer, gentler side of “Mom” at Thursday’s ceremony, remembering her excitement for “special Christmas things” and how the Whelchel house “exploded” with holiday cheer during December.
“Our Christmas tree has been up for six years,” commented Joanne.
Kristy, the youngest daughter, remembered how her mom returned to church after the pandemic, tearing up as she talked of her mother’s difficulties with Alzheimer’s. Still, ‘Mayor Grandma’ held firm. “She loved the church, and she loved the Lord.”
The pastor said Ms. Whelchel attended church practically every Sunday. “She was here on Easter,” he noted.
The late afternoon rite quickly became a family affair. Grandson Nick Hartofilis, with dad at his side, recited the Matthew 11:28-30 verse. Granddaughter Makayla Whelchel sang “Waiting on an Angel,” accompanying herself on the guitar. Everyone stood to sing “Amazing Grace.”
All 10 grandchildren – Haley, Davis, Makayla, Mary, Jack, Maddie, Caroline, Vivi, Nick and Mira – recited a poem, “Legacy of Love” as they stood in a line across the stage. Each one spoke a verse.
That theme seemed to stick as mourners quietly left the church about 5 p.m.