Retired jurist Theresa Whelan of Wading River, who in 2018 became the first Democrat to win the Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court Judge seat in a century, died December 26 following a battle with cancer. She was 60.
As the supervising judge of the Suffolk County Family Court, Whelan instituted reforms that helped provide remote access to temporary orders of protection, and she was a catalyst of the FOCUS program that expedites services addressing trauma and developmental needs of children and parents in the courts.
“She was a fair and compassionate jurist who served as a leader within the court system,” says Rich Schaffer, chairman of the Suffolk Democratic Committee. “She was a loving mother and wife, and a great friend.”
Born on January 21, 1962 to John and Joan Bryant, Whelan graduated from Sayville High School. She received a BA in English and a Master of Science in policy analysis and public management from Stony Brook, then graduated Albany Law School in 1988.
She began her legal career as a Suffolk assistant county attorney. She later served as senior law clerk to Supreme Court Judge Eli Wagner in Nassau County and principal law clerk in Suffolk County for Supreme Court Judge Mary M. Werner and, later, Supreme Court Judge William B. Rebolini.
She took the bench herself in 2008. In Family Court, she heard primarily child abuse and neglect cases and presided over Family Treatment Court, where she worked to safely reunite families. Then as Suffolk’s Surrogate judge, she presided over proceedings for wills, trusts and estates as well as guardianship.
Whelan was the lead judge of the Suffolk County Court Improvement Project, a collaborative of judges, lawyers, child welfare specialists and mental health professionals creating innovative court practices to help troubled parents safely care for their own children.
She was recently appointed to serve on the NY State Commission on Parental Representation, which is tasked with holding public hearings and reporting on the status and quality of lawyers representing parents in child welfare cases.
Whelan was also past president of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association.
She and her husband, Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Thomas F. Whelan, recently celebrated their 32nd anniversary. They raised two children, Joseph and Erin, and Whelan was a proud grandmother to Erin’s 1-year-old daughter Andrea.
In her spare time, Whelan could often be found hiking, kayaking or spending time at the beach. She ran in several half marathons in recent years.
She continued her dedication to the public good even after her cancer diagnosis, volunteering to participate in clinical trials, despite the risks, in hopes of helping find a cure. Her family, friends and former colleagues remember her as someone who braved challenges with grace and compassion.
Whelan is survived by her mother, husband, son, daughter and granddaughter, as well as brothers Jack Bryant and Christopher Bryant; sisters Vaughn Bogucki and Victoria Yule; and many nieces and nephews.