Leo Whelan was a lucky guy – and not just because he did what he loved in Seaside Heights, running the iconic boardwalk arcade that bears his name.
Whelan died Nov. 27 at the age of 94 and was remembered this week by the borough council at its meeting. He lived a life that went beyond the boardwalk, having been born in Lakehurst and witnessing the Hindenburg explosion at what was then Naval Air Station Lakehurst. Ultimately, his name would become one that elicited smiles from children and adults alike who played Ski-Ball, air hockey and video games in a quest to win prizes amidst the summer breezes.
“He did a lot for Seaside Heights, and he didn’t forget his roots,” said Mayor Anthony Vaz. “He was a successful businessman and he gave back to Seaside Heights. We can enter the town from the south and the north looking at artifacts he donated. He once built a playground across from the community center.”
Whelan was best known for his larger-than-life persona and the personal touch that characterized his business.
“If you know Leo, you knew his personality,” Vaz said. “Everyone on this council and most people in Seaside have a story about Leo.”
The Lucky Leo’s Facebook page was filled with stories about its founder this week, who worked as a teacher at Central Regional High School before he broke into the arcade business.
“So much more than a husband, father and grandfather, he was a mentor and friend to so many,” the initial post said. “He will always be the eternal face of Lucky Leo’s and leaves behind generations of memories for families, not just ours.”
An interview conducted with Whelan several years ago remains on YouTube today. In it, he describes renting a space on the boardwalk in 1955 to open an arcade.
“They were going to tear down a whole block on Hamilton Avenue, and I went and visited with Mayor Tunney,” Whelan said. “I told him I was a schoolteacher, I was established, married and I really wanted to rent a stand. Out of the six stands on the block, I rented the smallest one because I didn’t have the money.”
Whelan borrowed $4,000 from the Teachers’ Credit Union in Asbury Park and used it to open the arcade.
While it may seem unusual today, games of chance were more heavily regulated in the 1950s. A year after opening, state officials descended upon the boardwalk just after schools let out and shut down almost all of the game stands. Five of the six businesses along the block closed, but Whelan had saved just enough money to keep his operation afloat.
Whelan went on to take over another stand and expanded his business.
“I had two stands and I worked them diligently – probably 10, 12, 13 hours per day,” he recalled.
One of his first employees was former borough council member and current Central Regional school board member Mike Graichen. Graichen, he said, would come to work the evening while Whelan caught a quick nap. Then it was back to work for the evening rush, which didn’t end until 2 or 3 a.m. before all was said and done.
Eventually, Whelan would go on to open the arcade that still bears his name to this day.
“His legacy is one I wish all of us could have when we pass,” Vaz said.