Where the generations meet
Whelan family remains committed to Oconomowoc

By Jeanette Michalets - Special to the Enterprise

Sept. 7, 2017

 Laurel Whelan serves coffee to Ralph Best of Tennessee Sunday at Whelan’s Coffee and Ice Cream.
Jeanette Michalets/Special to the Enterprise

OCONOMOWOC — “Place to be for all generations,” is the tag line Laurel and Patrick Whelan use for their coffee and ice cream business in the heart of downtown Oconomowoc. Located at 163 E. Wisconsin Ave., Whelan’s Coffee and Ice Cream is a hub for the people of Lake Country and it also attracts visitors from out of town.

The Whelans, whose family spans four generations in Oconomowoc, opened the business in 2002; behind the coffee shop, at the same address, Laurel operates her iconic lighting business, Homestead Lighting & Décor that began in the family home on Silver Lake Street, a home that has been in the Whelan family for generations.

No place like home

The Victorian home sports an interesting history. It was first occupied by Pat Whelan’s grandparents, Phil and Nora Whelan, who moved to Oconomowoc from New Jersey in 1931. Phil was a traffic manager for Carnation Company. He rented the house in 1941, then sold it to his son and his wife, Bill and Dorothy Whelan. Patrick and Laurel purchased the home in 1987 and reared eight children there.

The industrious family has known many challenges, not the least of which was raising a happy, healthy octet of kids, all of whom have graduated from college. Six of the Whelan children still live in Oconomowoc, while one lives in Waupaca and another in Denver. Pat is a longtime mail carrier and Laurel runs the coffee shop and lighting business with Pat’s help. She has also been involved in promoting Oconomowoc and its downtown businesses. Laurel has found mothering eight children, born in a span of nine years, rewarding and sometimes a bit challenging.

“Our biggest challenge was hanging onto family time in the family unit as the kids grew into their own with sports and extracurricular activities,” Laurel said. “The challenge was prioritizing their relationships in the midst of all that.”

 Pictured from right to left are: front row, Katie Whelan (Weiman); Sarah Whelan (Reuter); Heather Whelan (Beluschak); Todd Whelan; and back row, Chad Whelan; Stephanie Whelan (Lund); Shaun Whelan; and Michelle Whelan (Bruss).
Submitted photo

On a lighter note, Laurel remembers trying to get all the children dressed to go out. “When they were little, finding shoes when we needed to go somewhere was a challenge. You never knew who had what on,” she said.

The couple are also grandparents to 18 children, five of whom were born in a span of 14 weeks this past spring and summer.

These days, Laurel spends more time juggling her work commitments than children’s shoes. She admits to working seven days a week and says she wishes she had time for things that are important to her such as being even more involved in the community.

Presently, she works mornings in her coffee shop and afternoons in the lighting business which she started on the front porch of her home. Eventually, the business expanded into the family garage before morphing into a store. The couple sells and restores an array of lighting and décor items and helps people install lighting in their homes. They have provided lighting services to all kinds of residences, from log cabins to the Montgomery Ward mansion. Laurel says she is known for her crystal chandeliers. She feels they bring history and character to any home. Always an entrepreneur, she began dealing in antique lamps when she was a teenager, working as a picker selling lighting to local antiques dealers.

Love of family and community

It was also as a teenager that she met Pat at a company picnic in Nagawaukee Park. Laurel was 15 and Pat 16 when she was smitten with his blue eyes. They have been together ever since. Laurel describes her husband as “a people person” whose favorite part of his job as a mail carrier is interacting with the folks along his route.

The Whelan family partakes in a reunion every summer, with relatives visiting in town during July and August. This past summer the reunion was attended by Pat’s aunt May who is almost 100 years old, as well as by the newborns in the family. Laurel enjoys telling the story of Pat’s grandmother, Nora O’Brien Whelan, who came to the United States from Ireland and worked as a telephone operator in New York City. She was working the switchboard the night the Titanic sank in 1912. She decoded the SOS and contacted the authorities as the ship was sinking.

While some of the Whelan ancestors hailed from Ireland and the east, Pat and Laurel are deeply entrenched in Oconomowoc and its sense of history and community. “I’m all about community,” Laurel says. “We’ve been here so long. I’ve been involved in the politics of Oconomowoc for a long time, sometimes we have four or five organizations (meeting) in here. I’ve seen people go from dating to getting married to kids going to school.”

“I love Oconomowoc,” Laurel adds, “and I’m passionate about it which gets me into trouble. I love the sense of home this community offers to so many, the history and the lakes.”

There are a few changes she would like to see. “Probably more input on things that are important to everyone. Everyone has ideas and thoughts and I hear about them every day in the coffee shop. I wish everyone would reach out and let their thoughts be heard knowing their input makes a difference,” she said.

As for Laurel and Pat, they strive to make a difference in Oconomowoc every day through their love of family and community.