Steve Whelan Looks Back as Next Chapter Begins

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Thursday, April 19, 2018, 7:31 am
Ann Kammerer

Above: Steve Whelan outside the East Lansing Police Department where he has worked since 2000.

Steve Whelan didn't set out to work in law enforcement. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, his dad made Buster Brown shoes, while his mom stayed home to sell magazines and raise eight kids.

Within his large family, Whelan learned to appreciate different points of view and the value of each and every person. He brought those lessons to his current role as a school resource officer for the City of East Lansing.

"I drew on different life experiences and found that police work is a unique way to help serve the public by protecting the public," he says. "As police officers, we can help people in a world that is often out of control. I want to be the good guy that can help out in a crisis or difficult situation."

Whelan's wish seems to have come true. In the nearly dozen years he's worked as a school resource officer, he's worked to ensure the welfare and safety of countless students in public and private schools across East Lansing. As a full detective with the ELPD, he also advocates for juvenile victims and is the main investigator of juvenile crime in East Lansing.

Whelan's role is complex and sensitive. He often needs to respond at a moment's notice, deciding the best course of action to address negative behaviors and ensure restorative justice. He provides educational tours of the City's police department, educates students on internet safety, and coordinates with staff and students on lock-down drills.

Whelan, too, is charged to put his life on the line when the safety and security of students is threatened.

"There are a lot of jobs based on the motivation to help people," says Whelan. "But as a police officer, it's more than that. You have to be willing to sacrifice your own life to protect others. It's something I think about every day, and you want to do everything possible to prepare should something bad happen."

In June, the 53-year-old Whelan will retire from his special assignment working with schools and juveniles. He'll return to night patrol where he originally started when he joined the force in 2000. Until then, Whelan will remain a familiar face at East Lansing High School, MacDonald Middle School, and neighborhood elementary schools, as well as at St. Thomas Aquinas, the Greater Lansing Islamic School and Montessori schools.

"Officer Whelan's approach is one of support and caring. His focus is always on helping students and finding the best resolution for each situation," says Dori Leyko, Superintendent of East Lansing Public Schools. "We know that we can count on Steve to provide support and guidance with any situation."

The drive to serve

Whelan moved to East Lansing after graduating from college in the 1980s. He and his wife wanted to be closer to her family in Indiana. Michigan, he says, seemed closer than Missouri, so they settled on East Lansing and bought their first house in a city neighborhood.

Initially, Whelan worked as a mission pastor for Trinity Church. While busy coordinating overseas work, he decided he wanted to do something local and became the volunteer chaplain for the ELPD in 1997.

After three years, things changed.

"I became familiar with the police department and developed an even deeper respect for what they were doing," he says. "I was challenged to consider changing my career."

Whelan pursued training and education to become a police officer. In 2000, he started out on midnight patrol. Then in 2004, a post opened up for a community outreach position. Intrigued by becoming the school resource officer, he applied and held the six-year appointment from 2004-2009. Afterward, he returned to midnight road patrol for three years. In 2012, he applied for the next six-year rotation as a school resource officer, and became a full detective.

"I've been involved for 11 years now," says Whelan. "Now, when I'm out and around in the community, I'll see students who have graduated. I get to hear what they're doing and how they're successful. It's incredibly rewarding."

Coming full circle

Whelan considers himself fortunate. He doesn't expect praise for his work, or thanks and rewards when he helps kids through troubled or difficult times. But one day the effect of kind deeds came full circle when a catastrophic accident affected the course of his life.

In October 2015, Whelan and his wife were on the freeway, returning from a leisurely Sunday in Grand Rapids. A car hurtled over the median on Interstate 96 and hit the couple's Chevy head-on. The driver of the out-of-control vehicle died. The Whelans held on to life inside their crushed vehicle, badly injured and waiting for help.

His wife slipped into unconsciousness. Whelan slipped in and out. After what seemed like an eternity, paramedics began to cut away the door of his car. Through a haze of pain, Whelan heard a familiar word spoken by a familiar voice.

"The paramedic said my name," says Whelan. "Having someone say your name in a situation like that is amazing. It was a student I had helped a couple times years before, and there he was, right there for me when I was in desperate need."

East Lansing Firefighter and Paramedic Javier Ornelas was working for Delta Township at the time. He recognized Whelan within moments. Here was the man who had helped him stay out of trouble and graduate high school in 2008. Here was the man who had listened and cared.

"I remember thinking this is real, this is someone I know, who had helped me," says Ornelas. "With the vehicle being so badly damaged, I thought it could be much worse and was grateful he had not been injured any more than he was."

Ornelas helped get Whelan and his wife out of the car and into an ambulance. At the hospital, doctors told Whelan he had a 10 percent chance of going back to work. But with the help of his family, an expert medical and rehab team, and a supportive community, Whelan returned to work in six months. His wife resumed working shortly afterward, too, supported by the same expert care.

"My hope is always that students see that not only I care, but I care enough to see them succeed," Whelan says. "You never know who you are going to talk with and how you might affect them. Maybe they will be the person you will need some day."


Steve Whelan will retire in June from his post as the East Lansing Police Department school resource officer. He will receive the Distinguished Community Service Award from the East Lansing Educational Foundation at the 2018 Annual Awards Dinner on May 17 at the Eagle Eye Golf Club.

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