Joe Biden as a Blue Hen
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Evan Krape | Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase January 19, 2021
America’s 46th president will bring the values of a UD education to the White House
In November of 2016, Fred Sears visited the White House to see his longtime friend and former University of Delaware classmate, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Sears brought his grandchildren along for the trip, and the kids were regaled by Biden’s stories — nostalgic yarns centered on those UD days. At one point, Sears said, Biden walked his guests down the hallowed hall to share some of these college tales with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Somewhere along the way, Sears remembers spotting UD paraphernalia in the West Wing — ask him to rack his brain, and he will tell you it may have been a photo of Biden playing on the freshman football team that he glimpsed.
“Joe reminisces about UD all the time,” Sears said.
Sears understands why. In a way, he was introduced to Biden before birth — their mothers compared pregnancy journeys. But the boys did not grow close until their time as undergraduates at UD. It was on this campus, Sears said, they both “turned into adults.”
Now, on the eve of Biden’s inauguration as 46th President of the United States, he is set to bring his Blue Hen values into the White House yet again. Mentors, colleagues and longtime friends like Sears say Biden’s nostalgic references to study sessions in the Scrounge, spring break trips or football scrimmages decades after they occurred are not surprising given the University’s formative impact. Biden has spoken frequently of the gratitude he feels for an education from UD, a school that has produced mayors, governors, congresspeople, senators, a vice president and, now, the incoming leader of the free world.
“It’s absolutely thrilling and inspiring to see a proud UD alumnus become President of the United States,” said UD President Dennis Assanis. "During this momentous occasion, we are all reminded about the power of a UD education, which can take our students literally anywhere — to fulfill their dreams and make a positive difference in the world!”
Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but when that city suffered an economic downturn, his family moved to Delaware — first Claymont, then Wilmington — so his father could look for a better job. Fast forward to the fall of 1961, when Biden enrolled at UD as a history and political science major. His peers say he stood out for being a snappy dresser (think crew cut, khakis and a button-down shirt) and for frequently arriving on campus in a convertible borrowed from the car dealership where his father worked. But, mostly, Biden the Blue Hen is remembered for an uncanny ability to connect with people.
“He made you feel like you were the only person in the room when he talked to you, the only person in the world,” said Brian Barrabee, who, like Biden, lived in UD’s Harter Hall. “He was nice to everyone with whom he had contact. He made everyone feel good.”
One example occurred after Biden became president of his first-year class.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Brian, I want to thank you’,” Barrabee recalled. “I asked him: ‘What for, Joe?’ And he responded: ‘I want to thank you for not running, because you would have won.’ I thought to myself: What a nice guy. He didn’t need to say that.” (As class president, Barrabee added, Biden did a fine job, taking the role “very seriously.”)
Outside of student government, Biden played defensive back on the freshman football team, back when freshmen weren’t permitted to play on the varsity team.
“He was not the biggest or the strongest, but he was the kind of guy who gave 100% all the time,” said Barrabee, a former teammate. “In the locker room, he was always telling people — believably — that they were good players. He was very encouraging.” More recently, Biden spoke at the 2018 memorial tribute to the longtime Blue Hens football coach Tubby Raymond.
Off the field, Biden made meaningful connections with his UD faculty, relationships he would later credit with shaping his political aspirations. In a 2011 speech, on the campus that “played such a role in shaping my life,” Biden cited some of the generation-altering events that occurred during his time as a Blue Hen. These included listening to President John F. Kennedy warn of an impending showdown with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the assasination of JFK, which Biden learned about on the steps of Hullihen Hall; and “debating the drumbeat of impending war in Vietnam,” in the lounge at Harter Hall.
“It was professors like Dr. Paul Dolan, Dr. [LeRoy] Bennett, Dr. [Yaroslav] Bilinsky and maybe the smartest guy who ever taught me, Dr. David Ingersoll, who helped me understand the transformative events that occurred during my time here — and make sense of them,” Biden said, adding that “each in a different way instilled in me the belief that being engaged in politics was an honorable and noble undertaking, and that we each had something to contribute to the public debate.”
During one spring break from UD with friends in the Bahamas, Biden hit it off with a young woman named Neilia Hunter from Syracuse University, which solidified his post-graduation plans.
“On the plane ride home, he told me he was going to attend law school at Syracuse University,” said Sears, who went on to become president of the Delaware Community Foundation. “I replied: ‘Do you know how cold it is in Syracuse?’ He told me: ‘Fred, I’m in love’.”
Indeed, Biden secured both the law degree and the bride in New York before returning to the (then-deeply red) state of Delaware. As a Democrat inspired to make a difference by the civil rights unrest he saw in the streets of Wilmington, he won his first political campaign for New Castle County Council in 1970. In 1972, with the encouragement of late professor and mentor Paul Dolan, he challenged UD alumnus and popular Republican incumbent J. Caleb Boggs for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Although Biden was largely viewed by Delaware politicos at the time as a “sacrificial lamb,” according to Sears, his grassroots campaign managed a great upset by appealing to young voters’ discontent with the status quo. Biden was 13 days shy of his 30th birthday.
Then, in December of 1972, tragedy struck. While out Christmas shopping, Neilia was killed in a car crash along with the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Naomi. From the hospital where their two sons recovered from critical injuries, the newly-elected senator was sworn in, becoming the fifth-youngest person to hold a seat in the Senate.
Biden’s eldest son, Beau, went on to become the 44th attorney general of Delaware. In 2015, at the age of 46, he died of a brain tumor. “At the funeral, I watched hundreds of people collapse into Joe’s arms,” said Sears, treasurer of the Beau Biden Foundation. “They were there to comfort him, and he ended up comforting them.”
During his six-term tenure in the Senate, Biden earned a reputation for pragmatism — reaching across the political aisle to enact policy. His accomplishments included co-sponsorship of the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which led to a major decline in intimate partner violence, as well as the introduction of a pioneering climate change bill, which led to a specialized climate task force. Also during his tenure as senator, Biden became a Double Del, marrying Jill Biden (née Jacobs), who earned her bachelor of arts in English and later a doctorate in education from UD, a school the incoming First Lady refers to as “home.”
In order to spend as much time as possible with his family while in office, Biden traveled by train daily between Wilmington and Washington, D.C., a routine that lasted more than three decades and earned him the nickname “Amtrak Joe.” During these trips, Biden formed a friendship with Republican Mike Castle, the two-term governor of Delaware and former member of Congress. (As governor, Castle had ex officio status on the UD Board of Trustees.)
“What you see is pretty much what you get with Joe,” said Castle, adding that: “I’ve always believed he has an abiding interest in the University.”
During Biden’s 36 years in the Senate, this interest manifested in several ways. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Biden spoke at the Bob Carpenter Center, urging students to unite as Blue Hens and reject fear. In 2003, Biden again visited campus to participate in a special edition of MSNBC’s Hardball College Tour, where he fielded foreign policy questions from eager students. And, 16 months after this appearance, UD awarded Biden an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his work as a “tireless public servant” and “defender of the victimized.”
Notably, Biden and his staff were also regular participants in The Democracy Project at UD, which seeks to improve the teaching of civics in Delaware classrooms by facilitating meaningful dialogue between educators and government leaders.
“He was extremely supportive,” said Ed Freel, UD alumnus, senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper and co-founder of the Democracy Project. “I recall one session in 2008 specifically when the teachers met with Senator Biden for over an hour. One of them asked if they were sitting with the next vice president of the United States, and he explained why that was not likely ... which, of course, we laugh about now.”
Later that year, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama selected Biden as his running mate. In one of his final campaign stops before the election, the vice presidential hopeful held a rally on campus outside Memorial Hall, and then-journalism student Julie Wigley interviewed him. Biden immediately put her at ease, she said, despite her rattled nerves: “I felt like I was talking to someone I knew.” She asked why it was important for him to make this 11th-hour stop at UD, and “he responded that he had to go back to his roots,” she recalled. “He had to go back to the place that shaped him.”
Wigley, who graduated in 2009, remembered the experience as a formative one that solidified her chosen career path — today she works at a television station in Baltimore, where she sees many political figures come and go for interviews.
“They often have this attitude of: ‘We have to do this’,” she said. “But I had the sense that Biden belonged on campus. He didn’t come across like this big-headed politician doing this thing because it looked good — he wanted to come back to the University and make a statement. It was genuine. He loves this state and he obviously loves this school.”
During his two terms as vice president, Biden shaped foreign policy on Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict areas; he championed policies to protect the middle class; and he oversaw an $840 billion economic stimulus package to end America’s Great Recession. For implementation of the latter, “he did a fantastic job reaching out to governors, including me,” said Jack Markell, former state treasurer and past governor of Delaware whose father Bill Markell taught accounting at UD for 35 years. “The University is very much a part of who Biden is. I’ve heard him say a number of times that Delaware is stamped on his heart, and I think UD is a big part of that.”
Even while a heartbeat away from the presidency, Biden continued his campus outreach.
In a 2011 ceremony, he gave his senatorial papers to UD, although, in a speech delivered in Mitchell Hall, he told an audience of 650: “The real gift is what the University has given me. Today, I’m here to thank the University, and thank my professors, for the fact that I even have Senate papers in the first place.”
Susan Brynteson, May Morris Librarian Emerita who headed the University of Delaware Library for more than 35 years, worked closely with Biden on securing these records, which fill more than 2,500 boxes and are currently being processed on campus. During this time, she described him as “ever gracious” and relayed a story about the reception held after the ceremony.
“I was standing next to Joe Biden in the receiving line,” Brynteson said. “And coming through this line of faculty and invited guests was a man who, when he reached the vice president, said: ‘My wife wanted to come so badly, but she had something to do she couldn’t get out of.’ And, with that, Joe Biden responded: ‘Oh, does she have a phone number?’ He literally, right there, holding up the line, called the number of the wife and left her a message.”
Those who’ve interacted with Biden over the years attest: These efforts to give back to UD and its community are not mere political theatre but, rather, a genuine manifestation of appreciation. Backstage at this same event, removed from any crowds and microphones, “we had a conversation in which he was very passionate about UD, how important the students are to him and how he sees himself in them,” said Ralph Begleiter, Rosenberg Professor of Communication Emeritus and the founder of UD’s Center for Political Communication. “He enjoys and relishes any kind of interaction with smart young minds, and so in that sense, I think it’s a reward for Joe Biden when he comes back to the University.”
Begleiter, who interviewed Biden many times in locations around the world as a correspondent for CNN, recalled walking around campus with him in recent years.
“Students, of course, always recognized him,” Beglieter said. “And he would stop and point out his dorm to them, saying: ‘That was my room up there; that was my room.’ He has a very personal, gut connection to this place.”
This connection was apparent in 2016 when Biden attended the inauguration of UD President Dennis Assanis, and spoke about the power of this school to “translate research and discovery into greater measures of happiness and meaning” for people around the world. The following year, he became the founding chair of UD’s Biden Institute, a research center that develops public policy solutions to some of the nation’s toughest domestic challenges, including environmental sustainability, civil rights and violence against women. (Biden stepped down from the position before announcing his run for the presidency.) His sister and fellow UD graduate, Valerie Biden Owens, serves as vice chair.
“UD gave me the freedom and the knowledge and the platform to nurture my confidence and to grow into myself and prove my brother right,” Biden Owens said in a recent campus speech. “Confidence begins with conviction. You must find your own true north — the values that you stand for and the things that you simply cannot abide.”
In 2018, UD announced the renaming of its nationally ranked School of Public Policy and Administration, which houses the aforementioned institute, as the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration. From this space, faculty, staff and students conduct research and spearhead initiatives to improve communities in Delaware and beyond.
While Biden said he was humbled by the honor, it wasn’t enough for him to have his name attached to the building. He also “played an immense role in building a bridge between the efforts of the school and the wider community,” said Dan Rich, University Professor of Public Policy at UD who is writing a book on this history.
For UD educators, memorable examples of this engagement abound. Take Maria Aristigueta, dean and Charles P. Messick Chair of Public Administration at the Biden School, who recalled a conference in which Biden shared his thoughts on the plight of the middle class in America — a turning point in her own academic thinking on the subject, she said. Then there was the discussion Biden held on campus with presidential historian Jon Meacham about the battle over America’s soul and what, exactly, the country stands for — a guiding theme maintained by both the incoming president and the school that bears his name. Other impactful moments for Aristigueta include watching Biden repeatedly return to campus to interact with students in ways that are, she said, “so meaningful and valuable to the learning process.”
In November 2020, this next generation of students watched as their fellow Blue Hen won his bid for the presidency. And they will continue watching as he takes the values of a UD education — civility, respect, belief in a better tomorrow — to the White House. How, precisely, these values will play out on the global stage remains to be seen.
But one thing is certain.
“When you look at the longer arc of history, his name and the University’s name will be forever connected in a fundamental way,” Rich said. “When people think of this institution, they will think of Joe Biden’s alma mater.”