By Mary Hladky
BOCA RATON — Susan Whelchel, a force in city politics for nearly 20 years whose vision was to transform Boca Raton into a world-class city, died at age 77 on Aug. 5 surrounded by her family after battling Alzheimer’s disease.
“Former Mayor Susan Whelchel will be remembered as a dedicated public servant and advocate for her community and the residents of Boca Raton,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a memorandum directing flags to be flown at half-staff at the State Capitol, Palm Beach County Courthouse and Boca Raton City Hall on Aug. 11, the day of her funeral at Grace Community Church.
After moving to Boca with her husband, John, in 1978, Mrs. Whelchel devoted herself to her teaching career, volunteer work with nonprofits, including the Junior League of Boca Raton, and raising the couple’s four children.
When she turned her attention to politics, it was her experience with the Junior League that helped prepare her for her new role, said her son Jay Whelchel, founder of Whelchel Partners Real Estate Services in Boca Raton.
While some see the organization as encouraging volunteers to help out with good causes, it actually has a more important role, he said. “Their real goal is to give women leadership tools and skills to become leaders,” he said.
Mrs. Whelchel was elected to the City Council in 1995 and re-elected twice before she was term-limited from another run. She next served on the Palm Beach County School Board after then-Gov. Jeb Bush appointed her to a two-year term.
She returned to the City Council, serving two more terms before her election as mayor in 2008, a position she held until 2014.
She entered the political realm with the intent to elevate Boca from its reputation as a sleepy town with not much to recommend it to young people and corporations, Jay Whelchel said.
At a time when some major employers were leaving the city or downsizing, “she made it her mission to create a world-class city that young adults would want to come back to because jobs were here,” he said.
She was spurred toward that mission after asking high school graduates if they would return to Boca after graduating college. She was told “no,” he said, because “Boca is boring. There is nothing in Boca for us.”
Mrs. Whelchel’s longtime friend, former Boca Raton Mayor and County Commissioner Steve Abrams, echoed that assessment.
“That was her driving vision,” he said. “If you keep that next generation here, you have a real exciting, cohesive dynamic in your community, and she realized that.
“That resulted in a lot of specific things she would work on in terms of bringing jobs into the city,” said Abrams, who is leaving his position as executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which runs Tri-Rail, on Sept. 15.
“We brought thousands of jobs to Boca Raton,” he said. “We did a lot of ribbon-cuttings together.”
For the city to rise, Mrs. Whelchel recognized it needed not only good jobs but also good schools, health care, cultural offerings and strong nonprofit organizations, Jay Whelchel said.
To that end, she served on committees for Florida Atlantic University and Boca Raton Regional Hospital and volunteered at many nonprofits.
Among the things that she was most proud of, he said, was her effort to get Boca schools their fair share of funding and helping establish Don Estridge High Tech Middle School.
Her vision for the city has been validated by her own children, he said. He and two of his siblings moved back to Boca to pursue their careers.
“Lots and lots of our friends all moved back because of all the … vibrancy they are seeing,” he said.
Susan Slade Whelchel was born on Aug. 13, 1944, as the youngest daughter of Flora and Tom Slade in Baxley, Georgia. The family moved to Starke and she graduated from Jacksonville University with a degree in political science. While in Jacksonville, she met her husband of 52 years.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her daughter Joanne Jackson and her husband, Tracey; daughter Kristy Hartofilis and her husband, Nick; sons Matthew and his wife, Kimmie, and Jay and his wife, Melissa; and 10 grandchildren.
The family asked that donations be made in her memory to Grace Community Church, Alzheimer’s Community Care or Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center.