From UD to VP

Joseph R. Biden Jr., AS '65, was no Joe College. He was not disposed to be someone who would spend his life reliving bright college days, any more than he thought politics would never be sweeter than his maiden election to County Council.

Not that Biden did not value schooling. He just preferred it vicariously. He did, after all, marry Jill Jacobs-Biden, AS ’75, CHEP ’06EdD, who acquired four degrees, including a doctorate in educational leadership. If he was no Joe College, she was Jill Scholar.

Either way, the University of Delaware got Joe and Jill Biden where they wanted to go, toward a commitment to a better day.

Joe Biden dived into politics with a vision he often expresses by quoting Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who wrote, “Once in a lifetime/The longed for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme.”

Jill Biden turned to educating herself and others. Her dedication was evident in her dissertation, as she cited John S. Brubacher, an influential academic who noted, “Higher education replaced the western frontier as the land of opportunity for American youth.”

Joe Biden was in a rush when he arrived on UD’s Newark campus in 1961, law school and politics already on his mind. “Law school was like college; all I had to do was get through to graduation, and I could get moving on real life,” he said in his memoir called Promises to Keep.

Jill Biden, by contrast, was a disciple of learning–a bachelor’s degree in English and a doctorate, both from UD, bookends to master’s degrees from West Chester University in reading education in 1981 and Villanova University in English in 1987.

The 2008 election season brought recognition, headier than anything before, to Joe and Jill Biden and their intertwined relationship with the University of Delaware.

The University has been an incubator for governors, senators and judges, for Rhodes Scholars, for a Super Bowl quarterback in Rich Gannon and even for a 19th century secretary of state in Louis McLane, who attended a forerunner called Newark College.

The honor roll of alumni became more impressive still when Barack Obama reached down, deus ex machina, and drew Joe Biden–a six-term senator who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee–onto the Democrats’ national ticket for vice president.

Joe Biden, who graduated with a double major in history and political science, has not forgotten where he came from. “The University of Delaware has had a profound impact on the course of my life and career,” he once said. “I will forever hold a very special place in my heart for the University of Delaware.”

Biden’s early rendezvous with the University, after graduation from Archmere Academy in Claymont,
Del., was promising. “Joe being Joe, he was playing football and running for president of the freshman class. I loved being around him, because he always had so much energy,” said Newark Mayor Vance A. Funk III, BE ’65, a UD classmate who was the Blue Hens football team manager and helped Biden win his freshman office.

Biden’s embrace of college life did not necessarily extend to class work. “When my first semester grades came out, my mom and dad told me I wouldn’t be playing spring football,” he wrote in his memoir.

Biden eventually realized there would be no law school for him if he did not revisit his laissez-faire attitude toward academics. With guidance from David E. Ingersoll, then a new political science professor not much older than the students, he did.
“There was no question he was smart. When he put his mind to it, he could do anything. He had drive and a kind of intelligence for what he’s chosen to do in the body politic,” says Ingersoll, now a professor emeritus.

In keeping with Biden’s college experience, there was nothing more important than spring break.

In his junior year, Biden and some friends caught a ride to Fort Lauderdale, then puddle-jumped to Nassau. They conned their way onto a luxury hotel’s restricted beach, where they collectively spied an attractive young woman. During an argument over who should approach her, Biden simply strode away and did.

Her name was Neilia Hunter. She was a senior at Syracuse University, near her hometown in New York. Biden was smitten, and so was she.
“It changed his life, as far as going to Syracuse for law school and getting married,” says Fred C. Sears II, BE ’64, ’71M, now the Delaware Community Foundation president, who shared Biden’s spring break adventures.

Biden had new purpose. After marriage and a law degree, he came home to practice and get into Delaware politics. He was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1970, and two years later, when no other Democrat wanted to chance a race against J. Caleb Boggs, a Republican senator who had been the governor, he jumped at it.

Biden was 29. He would not turn 30, the Senate’s minimum age, until two weeks after the election. Still, he sensed there was a new day in politics, and it was his time.

By the 1972 election, Delaware’s political system was opening up, and the parties were losing sway. Primaries replaced conventions for choosing statewide nominees, and voting booths were shorn of the “Big Lever,” which encouraged straight-party voting with one easy pull. It also was the first election enfranchising 18-year-olds.

“Joe is a Delaware original,” says James R. Soles, professor emeritus of political science. “People may think Barack Obama is unique, but they should have been here to see Biden run for the Senate. Joe seized a hinge moment in Delaware history, when the page was turning, and brought extraordinary political skills as a 29-year-old to bear.”

In the most dramatic upset in state politics, Biden won by 3,162 votes.

All too rapidly, the political euphoria gave way to personal tragedy. In late December, while Joe Biden was in Washington, Neilia Biden took their two little sons and baby daughter in the family station wagon to buy a Christmas tree. In a collision with a tractor trailer, Neilia Biden and 13-month-old Amy Biden were killed and the boys badly hurt.

Joe Biden nearly did not take his Senate oath. “We can always get another senator, but they can’t get another father,” he said.
The Senate’s elders persuaded him to take office. Biden began a journey out of grief and upward in politics. He credited much of his restoration to Jill Biden, whom he started dating in 1975 and married two years later. A new daughter made five in the family.

Three decades later, Joe and Jill Biden gained the higher reaches of their endeavors, Joe Biden with his race for national office and Jill Biden with the doctorate she earned while teaching at Delaware Technical & Community College. The day Jill Biden successfully defended her dissertation, Joe Biden proudly put a sign in their driveway: “Dr. and Senator Biden live here.”

If Jill Biden has been the one grounded in campus life, Joe Biden still did his part. In 1965, the year of his graduation, the Blue Hen Yearbook had as its theme, “This is Delaware. We live, study and learn, then move forward in our chosen direction.”
Joe Biden got that lesson right.

Celia Cohen, AS ’74, is a journalist specializing in Delaware politics, which she has covered extensively since 1980, and is the author of the book Only in Delaware: Politics and Politicians in the First State. Cohen’s first recollection of Joe Biden is encountering him talking to students in the Rodney residence halls during his 1972 Senate campaign.