Jill Biden has a low-key appeal

Times Staff Writer

Jill Biden was teaching in a locked psychiatric unit at the Rockford Center in Delaware when one of her teenage students started spiraling out of control. He was on his feet, aggressive and abusive. In back of the class, a burly aide sprang up, ready to intervene. Biden shot him a look that said, “Wait.”

In just a few moments, the situation was defused without disruption or force.

“She was able to talk that kid back into the appropriate behavior, and she did it by conveying that she understood how he was feeling,” said Dana Garrett, the aide, who vividly remembers the incident two decades ago. “She didn’t have an air of status about her. Someone else had to tell me she was the wife of the senator.”


Now that Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) is set to become the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, the nation will be getting to know the wife of the senator.

As Jill Tracy Jacobs Biden rises to the national stage, friends and colleagues describe a woman who over three decades has carved out a life that is based not on her husband’s career but on her commitment to teaching, to her family and to the causes of healthcare, education and military families.

Those close to the 57-year-old describe a natural leader who avoids the spotlight but is comfortable in its glare. Yet she will stand in the local supermarket to solicit donations for military families or load a station wagon full of books and deliver them, without publicity, to New Orleans schools depleted by Hurricane Katrina.

“People love her,” said Allan Loudell, the host of Delaware’s WDEL radio station and a seasoned observer of the state’s political scene.

And whereas the senator attracts passionate supporters and detractors alike, when it comes to Jill Biden, “I’ve never heard a negative, not from politicos, not from anybody,” Loudell said.

Jill Biden grew up in Willow Grove, Pa., the oldest of four sisters raised by a homemaker mother and a banker father. She took her first job at age 15, telling a Delaware newspaper in 2007, “I wanted my own money, my own identity, my own career.”

Balancing that autonomous streak with the life of a political spouse gave her pause: Biden had to propose five times before she agreed to marry him.

He had been struck by her photo, before his brother arranged a blind date for them in 1975. Biden’s first wife and baby daughter had died in a car accident three years earlier, leaving him a widower with two young boys.

Jill said she was aware that she would be marrying more than the man and needed to take her time. “It was Joe, the boys and the state of Delaware,” she has said.

She said yes in 1977. The boys, Beau and Hunter, came along on the honeymoon.

She left her high school teaching job to raise them and Ashley, the daughter she and Biden had in 1981. But she returned to the classroom. In all, she worked 13 years in public schools and another 15 years, to date, at Delaware Technical and Community College. She teaches English composition but sees her job as more about instilling confidence than teaching the proper use of a comma.

On top of working, raising a family and squeezing in daily five-mile runs, Biden has continued her studies, earning two master’s degrees, in English and in reading, and a doctorate in education.

When her husband ran for president in 1987, Biden said that as first lady she would respond to the concerns of American women struggling to balance their roles as spouses, mothers and wage earners. With this latest turn on the campaign stage, Biden has said she would focus on education and healthcare.

“Politics is not her first love, policy is,” said John Flaherty, who served on the senator’s Delaware staff from 1987 to 1995. “Unlike a lot of political wives, she’s very low-key. A lot of people gravitate toward the limelight, use the position for social status, but she’s tried to utilize that for causes.”

These include Book Buddies, a program to get books into the hands of young low-income children, and Boots on the Ground, a Delaware-based group that supports members of the military and their families. Co-founder Kathy Greenwell noted that Biden is a military mother herself -- her stepson Beau will be going to Iraq in October with the National Guard.

Even so, Biden’s commitment surprised her.

“She’s definitely one who will dig in and do the hard work,” Greenwell said.

Biden worked the stands during a fundraiser at a baseball game in May. In late June, she spent several days manning a table in the local Shop- Rite grocery store, handing out pamphlets and collecting donations in an empty water cooler container.

Biden also founded the Biden Breast Health Initiative, or BBHI, after four friends were diagnosed with breast cancer and one died. The program has taught 7,000 high school girls the basics of good breast health. When a BBHI board member nominated her for an honor and she won, Biden turned it down.

“She called later to say how much she appreciated it, but that she didn’t like the spotlight,” said Sonia Sloan, the board member and an old family friend. Sloan also notes that Biden studied and taught under her maiden name. “She didn’t want any special consideration,” Sloan said.

When the group’s new executive director, Barbara Bernard, was diagnosed with breast cancer and was out for months, Biden was constantly in touch.

“She would call and say, ‘I’m going to the store, do you need anything?’ She was constantly asking what she could do to help. She never forgot for a minute,” Bernard said. She echoed others by citing compassion as one of Biden’s defining features.

Bernard also delights in the grounded side she often sees in the senator’s wife. When the health initiative held a fundraiser recently, Biden stressed the need to keep costs down. “She said, ‘All of my friends are teachers!’ ” Bernard said.