SEASIDE HEIGHTS – The borough lost a legend on November 27 with the passing of Leo Whalen also known as “Lucky Leo.”
Residents and visitors to the borough knew him not only from his popular boardwalk stand but as someone who was larger than life.
To those who knew him best, he was a husband, father and grandfather and a mentor and friend to many. His passing has left behind generations of memories.
Many have expressed their heartfelt condolences to the Whalen family concerning their loss. An unedited interview that can be viewed on YouTube, conducted by close friends of his in 2012 prior to Superstorm Sandy, showcased his background and character.
The interview is expected to be used as part of the borough’s historic museum which is in the process of being built on the borough’s boardwalk.
Whalen said in the interview that “I was born in November of 1926 in Lakehurst. I was delivered at the Paul Kimball Hospital. That was the only hospital around. Me, my brother and my two sisters, we all lived in Lakehurst until I was 12 and then we all moved to Toms River which I consider a great move.”
“Lakehurst is not a bad town. It had 2,000 people then and only 2,000 people today and the house where I lived is still there in Lakehurst. The old Catholic church that I used to go to is now a museum. One of the stain glass windows has an inscription in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Whalen which were my grandparents. I always like to go up and see that once a year. My father had a little store in Lakehurst which would be like a 7-Eleven today but in smaller vein. He sold everything from penny candy to gas,” Whalen said.
In March of 1955 Whalen opened a stand that leased at 215 Boardwalk. “It was originally a shooting gallery and we took it apart and when I retired my sons took over and they still lease it.”
“When I started the games were illegal. The town would issue a license for the games of chance and wheels at $200 apiece. We were not sanctioned by the state. Occasionally, they’d come down and we’d get information from the police that we should close for a couple of days and after the weekend we’d open up on Monday which the whole boardwalk did,” Whalen added.
In 1956, Whalen said “they came by the 15th of July and they closed us for six weeks. Where my stand was there was six other stands and I think four of the other stands left. You couldn’t make your rent. I was a teacher at Central Regional had I borrowed money from the teacher’s union so I kept the stand. I made just enough money to make the rent.”
“In the 60s and 70s you didn’t have as many people and it was 100% family. Times have changed and sometimes it wasn’t always for the best. Seaside went through a change that wasn’t really great but now in the last few years my two sons Steven and Tommy tell me that it is going back to families so it looks like it’s on its way up,” Whalen said. He spoke fondly of his wife Barbara who he said provided an artistic flair to the design of the prizes at his stand and who like him, enjoyed the sport of golf.
Michael Graichen, who heads the borough’s public relations department and previously served as a councilman shared some of his memories of Whalen on his Facebook page saying that he had vivid memories of Whalen since the time he worked for him as a teenager. “That summer, a long time ago, he saw me walking on the boardwalk, depressed after losing my job as the “ring boy” at the Casino Merry-Go-Round.”
“Well from that day on until I was 22 and opened my own business, I worked for Leo. My father died three months before I was born and from that first day on the job he was my friend, my father, and my mentor. Most of all treated my mother like a princess,” Graichen said. He added that Whalen’s influence on his life was profound. “He made sure I went to college. I became a teacher like him at the same school. I build apartments like he did and I owned property in Florida like he did.” Graichen said he built his own arcade and called it Luckys. “I owe a lot to him and will miss him dearly. Rest in peace my friend and hopefully we will meet again.”