He first threw his hat into local politics as a trustee for the Catholic school board and then worked his way up to reeve and warden of Essex County before running as a Liberal in the 1959 provincial election. He lost that race, but found his wife in the campaign office. On April 30, 1960, he married Elizabeth Pollinger, the daughter of immigrants from what was then Yugoslavia, and a legal secretary to a big Liberal supporter.
Romance blossomed over Mr. Whelan’s campaign speeches, which she typed for the neophyte candidate. They subsequently had three daughters: Theresa, Susan (who represented her father’s old riding from 1993-2004) and Catherine.
Electorally, Mr. Whelan fared much better when he switched to federal politics, winning the riding of Essex, a seat he held until he retired from elected politics in 1984. Chafed that Mr. Pearson never appointed him to Cabinet, Mr. Whelan came into his own as a hard-working and popular minister under Mr. Trudeau. He appointed him Agriculture Minister in 1972 and kept him there for 12 years – except for the brief period when the Liberals were out of power in 1979-80.
After Mr. Trudeau retired, Mr. Whelan ran for the leadership, losing on the first ballot with only 84 votes, an experience he described as one of the most humiliating of his career. He then switched to Mr. Chrétien, rather than front-runner John Turner, demonstrating once again that loyalty counted more to him than career advancement.
Mr. Whelan was dumped from Cabinet by Mr. Turner, another slight in what Mr. Whelan later said was the worst year of his life. He resigned his seat before the snap election Mr. Turner called that summer and accepted a Liberal patronage appointment to Rome as Canada’s inaugural ambassador to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), only to be fired by the new prime minister, Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney.
It was an ignominious political end for a man who had served his country well and faithfully, but Mr. Whelan never abandoned farmers here or abroad (heading up a number of local and international anti-famine and food management initiatives) or the Liberal Party. He and Mr. Turner pasted over their differences to join forces in 1988. “I definitely wanted him to run again,” Mr. Turner said in an interview. “He was a good member of Parliament, a great constituency man … his company was sometimes difficult, but I always enjoyed it.”
Although Mr. Whelan didn’t throw his Stetson into the electoral ring, he did stump the countryside for his former nemesis, arguing the pitfalls of free trade in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Mr. Mulroney from winning a second landslide majority.
Mr. Chrétien, who restored the Liberal fortunes in 1993, appointed him to the Senate three years later, a honour Mr. Whelan accepted even though he had spent years deriding the unelected body. In fact, when he had to retire at the mandatory retirement age of 75, he joked that he should never have voted to impose an age limit on serving in the Upper Chamber.
Mr. Whelan leaves his wife, Elizabeth, his three daughters and his extended family.