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Leading the Charge

by Samantha Melamed
As a child, the vice president’s wife spent her weekends exploring Hammonton or sunbathing down the Shore. Now, Dr. Jill Biden has brought her passion for education, (not to mention her love for the Phillies) to the national stage.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Vice President Joe Biden ahead of President Barack Obama’s jobs address this September, Republican House Speaker John Boehner took a moment to brag to Biden about his recent golf score, a 67. “That’s incredible,” agreed Biden, caught unawares by a live microphone. Then, he pointed up toward the gallery, with his own boast: “That’s my wife.”

It’s not the first time Biden has, almost in awe, referred to Dr. Jill Biden as his better half. After all, while she may be known as the United States’ Second Lady, Jill Biden brings to the job a whole lot of firsts: The first wife of a vice president to hold a paying job, as a professor at Northern Virginia Community College. The first to earn her doctorate while in her 50s. The first, surely, to wear a Phillies jacket signed by Jimmy Rollins while rooting for the Fightin’s during a World Series.

The Bidens have always done things their own way. In his 34 years as the Senator for Delaware, the vice president was sometimes known as “Amtrak Joe” for his steadfast refusal to join his colleagues in taking up residence in Washington, instead commuting home nightly on the Northeast Corridor line. And Jill, a Hammonton-born local who was raised in Willow Grove but spent childhood weekends in South Jersey, has made a mantra of being true to herself, whether in continuing her teaching work or in pursuing those same issues she has always held dear, despite the broader political stage.

“I’ve kept true to what I’ve always been interested in, which has been military families, education and breast cancer, but now I have a much bigger platform,” Biden says. “Some parts of my life have basically stayed the same, but have sort of gotten bigger.”

In the past year alone, Biden has appeared on The Late Show to plea for support for humanitarian relief for women and children fleeing famine and war in the Horn of Africa (“as a mother,” she told David Letterman, “I felt I had to do something”); she’s partnered with First Lady Michelle Obama to launch Joining Forces, a broad-based veterans support initiative; and she’s made herself heard as a vocal advocate for the community college system.

It’s been a long journey for the hometown girl who first caught then-Sen. Biden’s eye when she was a University of Delaware English major in 1975, having abandoned her first attempt at a college degree (in fashion merchandising), and her first marriage (to the owner of a local bar). The Senator spotted the blonde—then Jill Jacobs—in an advertisement, tracked down her phone number, and convinced her to go on a date with this dignified Capitol Hill suit, despite her penchant, as she admitted to Letterman, for men with “long hair and clogs.”

The couple hit it off almost immediately, bonding partly over their love of the greater Philadelphia area, which both were loathe to leave behind. To this day, Jill remembers the region with adamant fondness.

“As a child,” she recalls, “every weekend we would go see my grandparents. Both sets of grandparents lived in Hammonton, so every single weekend all the kids would pile in the car and we’d head down there.”

In the summer, she says, “We’d drive down [to Ocean City] for the day and go to 34th Street, to the little hamburger stand there, and have lunch on the beach. And then, you know the Weymouth Stream? On the way back we’d stop and take off the sand in this freshwater stream. I have a lot of wonderful memories about being with my grandparents; they’d take me to Steel Pier and to ride the rolling carts on the Boardwalk [in Atlantic City].”

Her mother was a homemaker, but Jill Jacobs had other dreams for herself—one reason why the Senator, who already had two sons, had to propose five times before she agreed to marry him. (Joseph, nicknamed Beau, and Robert Hunter are Biden’s children with Neilia Hunter, who had died in a car crash along with Biden’s 1-year-daughter in 1972.) Even after her marriage, Jill Biden pursued her studies, earning a master’s degree in remedial reading education, and a second master’s in English. As for taking on her Ph.D. in education at University of Delaware, Biden debated it for about as long as most of us take to decide whether we have time to stop off at the post office.

“I thought, ‘Why not go for my doctorate?’ It was right there: I was teaching in Newark, [Del.], so it was close by,” says Biden, who famously enrolled under her maiden name so as not to attract special treatment. “I just decided it was one thing I wanted to achieve in life.”

It’s the same way with her teaching career: she never for a moment equated her husband’s presidential aspirations with curtailing her own career, which has included teaching in public high schools and at an adolescent program within a psychiatric hospital. “I had been teaching all during the campaign,” she says of the 2008 presidential and later vice-presidential bid. “I told Joe, ‘If we’re elected, I’m going to continue to teach,’ and he was totally supportive. And when I met with Michelle Obama and said, ‘I have to teach,’ she said, ‘Of course you do: you have to do what you love.’”

Biden is also known as a supportive politician’s wife—when the timing is right. She saw her husband through an unsuccessful 1988 presidential run. But she told Vogue Magazine that in 2004, when politicians clustered in the Senator’s living room coaxing him to a bid for the national stage, she strolled indoors in her bikini, the word “No” written across her stomach.

Yet after George W. Bush won a second term, Biden realized just how high the stakes were for the nation, and urged her husband to run again.

“I would teach Monday through Thursday, then join the campaign Thursday night through Sunday night, and often during the weekdays I would travel to [campaign events] that were close by,” she recalls. She became known for using car rides not to chat with the press but to grade papers on the way to rallies and fundraising dinners.

Now that her husband is installed as V.P., Biden has found a way to continue her 30-year teaching career at Northern Virginia Community College, while finding time for all the demands and perks that being Second Lady affords.

“There really aren’t any typical days here,” she said, sharing a snapshot of her life in the nation’s capital as of this summer. “Yesterday I did the Montgomery County [Pa.] College commencement speech and took the train back to Washington. This morning I was at my granddaughter Maisy’s fourth-grade play, then I came to the White House and met with STEM teachers for math and science. I’m preparing for a deployment tomorrow: I’m giving a speech there…. Every day seems to be filled and busy, but I think that’s what makes it interesting. There are so many opportunities and I just can’t miss out on them. We’re either here for four years or eight years, and I just want to be a part of every moment of it.”

Those days do, however, also include private pursuits. Still a five-mile-a-day runner at age 60, Biden is also focused on her family, including daughter Ashley, stepsons Hunter and Beau, and a flock of five grandchildren.

Dignified Jill (who has occasionally gotten flack for insisting on being called “Dr.”, a title the media normally reserves for medical physicians) and straight-shooting Joe (whose candor has occasionally gotten him into hot water) are among the most likeable couples inside the Beltway—now that they’ve finally moved there, to the V.P’s residence at No. 1 Observatory Circle. And they’ve become especially close with another pair of Washington society outsiders: the Obamas.

“Michelle and I have a really great friendship, and I like to think we complement one another,” Biden says. “She’s a young mom with two little girls, and I’m a grandmom…. We’ve both been working women. And she has her mother there at the house with her—she’s close to her family; I’m close with my family. So we have a lot of things in common. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know her. She has a great sense of humor. We have fun when we travel together.”

It turned out that the biggest adjustment for Jill Biden wasn’t the D.C. social scene, or her newfound fame, but the pace of life as Second Lady. “I really thought I would be doing a couple events a year, and actually it’s a couple of events a day,” she says. “It’s much busier than I ever anticipated.”

For one thing, Joining Forces has turned out to be a major commitment, including recruiting nationwide volunteers for service opportunities, meeting with military families and looking at new ways to support them.

And this month, she’ll have to plan her time even more carefully, given her commitments for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month—she works with Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the National Breast Cancer Coalition, and will swing back up to Delaware to support the Biden Breast Health Initiative, which she founded in 1993 while she was a senator’s wife. Almost as important, she’ll be “glued to the TV” for the baseball post-season, since she and Joe are still avid Phillies and Flyers fans.

She’ll also be in the thick of the school year at Northern Virginia Community College. “I always say that my students are my heroes, because they’re working, they’re going to school, they’re raising children, and they’re doing everything possible to try to get an education,” she says, explaining what keeps her going. “They work so hard and they’re juggling so much”—kind of like Biden herself.

Back at University of Delaware, Biden’s dissertation focused on student retention at community colleges. Now, she tries to apply what she found in her research. She says her main goal as an educator is “to instill confidence, to show them what they can do, that’s the most important part of my job—to build them up.”

To Biden, the importance of education for all Americans can’t be understated. “I knew Barack was a great supporter of education,” she reflects, of the day when her husband was asked to join the Obama campaign as the vice presidential nominee. “That was one of the greatest joys of joining this team, this administration: I knew that he would take education seriously.”

Which, of course, comes back to the other pursuit Jill Biden will have to carve out time for this fall: warming up for the long slog of the 2012 campaign trail.

“I think I will be on the road a lot,” Biden says, but she’s looking forward to it. “One of the things that I say and Michelle says is, we love to get out and meet the American people, to meet people from all walks of life. But I still hope to teach. I did it in the last campaign, and I would like to teach this time as well.”

Despite her long experience in shaking hands and kissing babies, Biden still describes herself as fundamentally not a political person. But, she admits, “I don’t know how realistic it is to say that, now that I’ve been in this administration for three years.” While she may not go in for partisan politics, however, Biden has plenty more she wants to say before her husband’s term is out.

“I am involved with so many different aspects, and I really love helping military families and working on education issues,” she says. “I have this platform and I don’t want to waste it.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
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