San Diego County









            Self-educated, Thomas Whelan is liberally endowed with those qualities which spur the individual ever onward and upward, enabling him to leave the ranks of the many and take his place among the successful few.  Mr. Whelan is one of the most talented of the younger members of the San Diego bar and since 1931 has served as District Attorney, clearly demonstrating that he is the right man for the office.  He was born in O’Neill, Holt County, Nebraska, July 6, 1902, and pursued his education in his native town until graduated from high school in 1919.  Going to Omaha, Nebraska, he secured work in a bank, where he was employed until the latter part of 1920, when he came to San Diego.  Taking up the study of law in 1921, he attended a night school conducted by The American Extension University, and in 1924 was admitted to practice in all the courts of the state of California.

            Mr. Whelan began his legal career in San Diego at that time but two years later, in 1926, laid aside his practice in order to attend the university at Santa Clara, California, where he took a course in philosophy and psychology.  With his return to San Diego in 1927 he was appointed deputy district attorney for San Diego County and acted in that capacity for a year, resuming private practice August 1, 1928.  In 1930 he became a candidate for the office of district attorney, running against the incumbent and one other opponent.  In the primary he led his nearest opponent by nine thousand votes and barely lacked the majority necessary to win at the primary election.  In the general election he secured more than thirty-four thousand votes, leading his opponent by an excess of thirteen thousand votes, and received the largest majority ever cast in favor of any man elected to this office.  When Mr. Whelan cast his hat in the ring before the election he was but twenty-seven years of age and at the time he was sworn into office he was twenty-eight, enjoying the distinction of being the youngest man ever elected to fill an office as important as that of district attorney in a county of this size. 

            In population San Diego County is the fourth largest in California, ranking only behind Los Angeles, San Francisco and Alameda counties, and the office of the district attorney handles a tremendous amount of civil and criminal business.  The district attorney prosecutes all criminal cases in all township justices’ courts and in all superior courts of the County of San Diego, in addition to being the legal advisor of all county officials—including the board of supervisors—and the attorney who handles all of the county’s civil business.  For the purpose of aiding him in the management and conduct of his office he has one assistant and eleven deputies, as well as a competent investigating staff and capable clerical force.

            In 1931, which was the first year that Mr. Whelan held this office, six hundred two felony cases were handled in the superior court as against three hundred seventy-five felony cases in the superior court handled in 1930 by his predecessor, Stephen Connell.  Eight hundred fifty-three misdemeanor cases were tried in the justices’ courts of San Diego Township.  In the civil department of the office twenty-nine cases were tried in the superior court, the district attorney’s office winning twenty-eight of these cases and losing only one.  During 1931 the investigating department of the district attorney’s office handled eight hundred thirty-three cases and obtained restitution in bad check cases where no criminal intent was involved in ninety-eight specific instances in amounts ranging from five dollars to one thousand dollars without having to take the cases into court.

            As a public prosecutor Mr. Whelan has been honest, courageous and efficient, following a course which has elicited high commendation, as shown in the following article, which appeared in the San Diego Tribune in July, 1931.  “Scientists say that both heredity and environment determine character.  In other words, not only who you are but where you are.  Some men and women, however, seem to develop without relation to environment, succeeding as easily in adverse surroundings as in favorable.

            It is popularly supposed that the environment of Southern California does not induce the success of young men, due to the perfection of the climate, which invites to play every day in the year.  In fact, many people say that while they can work hard in other parts of the world they find this section too irresistible to stay indoors or do aught but breathe fresh air and indulge in sports and recreations.

            The idea of any San Diegan giving up such pleasures in order to burn the midnight flame, as did Lincoln, seems utterly preposterous.  And yet it is being done in this city by earnest young people superior to their alluring environment.

            Schooled in Nebraska, where he won a state oratorical contest at sixteen, Thomas Whelan finished off at the University of Santa Clara, then went to work in a San Diego bank, and later was with a title insurance company.  In his spare time he studied law under the direction of his father, who is a local practicing attorney, with the result that Thomas was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-one—at the time the youngest lawyer in the United States.  Still a very young man, Mr. Whelan is already District Attorney, having scored a landslide plurality vote at last fall’s election.

            San Diegans have pride and confidence in their young district attorney, who had the courage and determination to succeed via the old-fashioned method of hard work and deprivation, . . . and whose record is one of action and fearlessness in behalf of the people.”

            On the 21st of January, 1928, Mr. Whelan was married to Miss Dorothy Elliott, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they have a daughter, Sue, aged three years.  The residence of the family is at 3733 Amaryllis, Lerna Portal, San Diego.  Mr. Whelan is a communicant of the Catholic Church, and fraternally he is identified with the Knights of Columbus, the Loyal Order of Moose and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.  His professional connections are with the San Diego County Bar Association, the California State Bar Association and the American Bar Association.




Source: California of the South Vol. IV, by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 345-348, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis.  1933.

© 2012  V. Gerald Iaquinta.