The Quaker connection:
Joe Biden and Me
Thursday, September 4, 2008
It was early spring in Wilmington, Del., in 1990 and I was a buck-toothed 11-year-old with the attention span of a nervous chihuahua.
My fifth-grade history teacher at Wilmington Friends School, Ms. Elder, squinted through the sunlight before cutting short a lecture on the Plessy v. Ferguson case.
A very special guest was coming to speak to the class: U.S. Senator Joe Biden.
Biden walked into the classroom and stood in front of the blackboard. He wore a dark blue suit, his signature “U.S. Senate” gold cufflinks– that busted out from inside the arms of his suit jacket– and a smile that could melt glaciers.
As he spoke, he looked into each and every one of our pre-adolescent eyes as if we were the most important constituents in the state.
With George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle in the White House, politically, the times weren’t much different from today– except that they seemed like they might at some point, as now, be a-changin.’
But Biden didn’t talk about politics, U.S. history or even about his time as a state Senator– aside from a brief professional biography, including his failed bid for the presidency in 1988.
Instead, he spoke about the importance of family. How he took the Amtrak train to and from Washington, D.C., everyday from Delaware in order to spend his free time with his wife and children.
He talked about his first wife, Neilia, his second child, Naomi, and the tragic auto accident that killed them in the early ’70s while they were Christmas shopping. He painted the bittersweet scene of being sworn into the Senate by his son Beau’s hospital bedside shortly after the accident.
The First State’s longtime political luminary has an affinity for the private Quaker school: his children, Ashley, Hunter and Beau, attended middle school there and his sister Valerie had once been the head of the history department.
Throughout the years, Biden has continued to visit Friends School.
In February 2003, he spoke to third, fourth and fifth-graders on a more political subject. In a newsletter written to Friends School parents from the former head of school, Lisa Darling, she wrote: “Senator Biden was asked about the prospect of war with Iraq and he responded with great sensitivity to our heritage and identity as a Quaker school.”
Biden, who initially voted to authorize the war in Iraq, told the students: “Good and honorable people can disagree about the best way of doing things, even when they share the same goals– such as achieving peace and saving lives– and the same core values– such as respect for all people and love of country.”
Biden’s connection to Friends School is only one of many examples of his community connections back in my hometown, where locals cherish decades of Joe Biden stories.
Terry Maguire– my eighth-grade English teacher– has been teaching at Friends School for 29 years. In his second year at the school, in 1981, he had his first personal contact with Biden.
As an adviser to the school paper, The Whittier Miscellany, Maguire, like editors everywhere, had to fill in the missing pieces of stories every so often.
“I can’t remember exactly what the story was about but I put in a call to [Biden] to ask him a couple of questions,” Maguire says over the phone from his Delaware home. “[Biden] called me back that same day; these kinds of stories have become typical of Biden around the community.”
My father, Michael Joseph– an attorney and the Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee for the state of Delaware– says it’s easier to feel a personal connection to local politicians in such a small state, particularly when they’re as accessible as Biden.
From Bar Association meetings, to train rides to Washington, D.C., and chance meetings at the grocery store, my dad runs into Biden on a fairly regular basis.
“[Biden’s] a regular guy,’’ he says. “Mom and I see him at the movie theater wearing a leather jacket and aviator glasses. We recently ran into him at the Brandywine Arts Festival.”
Eighteen years after my first encounter with Biden, it was surreal to see him glowing on television as thousands of people waved apple-red “Biden” flags at the Democratic National Convention in Denver– when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination.
His daughter Ashley, whom I used to see walking the halls at Friends School everyday, stood behind her father as he said, “I’m honored to represent the first state, my state. The state of Delaware.”
Aside from less hair and a new suit, Biden wore the same gold cufflinks and sported the same smile as he did when he spoke to my fifth-grade class almost two decades ago.
To me, and to my other “Friends’’ from school, though, he’ll always be a regular Joe.