Wayne Whalen, influential attorney who was delegate to Illinois constitutional convention and adviser to many politicians, dies

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Wayne Whalen headed the Chicago office of the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom law firm for more than 25 years and was active in Democratic politics, serving as a delegate to the Illinois constitutional convention in 1969 and 1970 and working on Harold Washington’s two mayoral campaigns.

“Wayne had an extraordinary capacity to see things clearly, to think clearly about them and to say clearly what he saw and thought,” said former colleague John R. Schmidt, a chief of staff to former Mayor Richard M. Daley. “He used that capacity to bring clarity to the most complicated legal situations in a way that made colleagues and clients want to work with them — and gave them confidence to move forward.”

Whalen, 82, died of progressive supranuclear palsy June 20 in his home in the Kenwood neighborhood, said his daughter, Ann.

Born Wayne Walter Whalen in Savanna, Illinois, Whalen was the son of the founder of the “Whistling Wings” duck farm — the world’s largest mallard duck producer — in tiny Hanover, in the state’s northwest corner.

He graduated from Hanover High School and recieved a bachelor’s degree from the Air Force Academy in 1961. He was a missile launch officer and a first lieutenant at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, for three years before moving to Chicago to attend Northwestern University’s law school.

Upon graduating from law school in 1967, Whalen joined the Mayer, Brown & Platt law firm as an associate, becoming a partner in 1974.

In 1969, Whalen took leave from Mayer Brown to be a delegate to the 1970 state constitutional convention. He was named chair of the convention’s style, drafting and submission committee — probably the most important lawyer’s job at the convention, Schmidt said.

“He reviewed all the substantive work before it was finalized to try to make sure the words of the new constitution would achieve their intended purpose,” said Schmidt, who had worked alongside Whalen at Mayer Brown. “A justice of the Illinois Supreme Court once told me that in deciding Illinois constitutional cases, she came to look at Wayne’s convention comments — often as the last speaker before a vote — to give her clarity and guidance.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, left, confers with attorney Wayne Whalen at the Democratic National Convention in Miami in 1972. (Chicago Tribune)

In July 1972, Whalen and Schmidt represented a delegation led by Aldermen William Singer and William Cousins, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. that challenged and ultimately replaced then-Mayor Richard J. Daley and 58 other delegates on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Miami.

A Cook County judge previously had issued an order barring the delegation’s participation in the convention and had threatened everyone with contempt. However, Whalen stood firm, and the Democratic Credentials Committee ultimately gave badges to the 59 rebel Chicago delegates. Several years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Singer bloc’s favor, concluding that national political parties have the right to make rules that may supersede state law.

“Wayne never for a moment wavered in the view that we had a right to participate and should do that,” Schmidt said. “And after the convention, the U.S. Supreme Court (in 1975) agreed and reversed the Cook County court order on constitutional grounds.”

Whalen was part of a consortium of prominent Chicagoans led by then-Chicago Sun-Times publisher James Hoge that in 1983 lost out to Rupert Murdoch in a bid to buy the tabloid.

In 1984, Whalen left Mayer Brown to join Skadden Arps as the head of its newly opened Chicago office.

Whalen considered running for governor in 1990 as an alternative to then-Attorney General Neil Hartigan. Instead, he continued to immerse himself in his law practice, which focused on corporate takeovers, business restructurings and friendly consolidations.

“Deals are our focus,” Whalen told the Tribune in 1991. “If someone wants to do a deal, he can come to us to get it done, because in the world of deals, there is no greater crime than the lawyer botching it up.”

“Wayne was a lawyer who really was larger than life,” said former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, a Skadden Arps partner. “The lawyers lucky enough to practice with him got to experience working with someone who had seen and done it all. Wayne also was a man of few words, and so folks hung on every one of them.”

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Whalen served on numerous boards, including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation, the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy and the Mutual Fund Directors Forum. He also helped to found and also served as chairman of the board of Van Kampen American Capital Funds, which is now part of Invesco.

In January 2010, Whalen stepped back as the managing partner of Skadden Arps’ Chicago office, but he remained of counsel to the firm. He retired altogether in January 2020.

“In his 82 years, he served many roles — lawyer, adviser, writer, advocate — but no matter what part he was playing he will always be remembered for his ability to build bridges and act as a steady hand in difficult moments,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement.

In addition to his daughter, Whalen is survived by his wife of 52 years, former Governors State University President Paula Wolff, whom he met at the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention; two other daughters, Amanda and Clementine; two sons, Nathaniel and Daniel Hodges; two sisters, Marianne Murphy and Catharine Eisenhofer; a brother, William; and 11 grandchildren.

Services are pending.

Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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June 28, 2022 at 03:48PM

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