The Joe We Know

Many Delawareans have stories of President-elect Joe Biden. Here are a few you likely haven’t heard.

On January 20 in Washington, D.C., in a ceremony that will be broadcast around the world, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of United States.

But before Biden officially tackles the monumental duties of the most important job on the planet, a variety of Delawareans shared with us roles they’ve seen him play here in the First State: U.S. senator, father figure, grandfather, customer, boss and—as many see it—the accessible and often modest man who treats people he meets with patience and equitable dignity.

Following is what some of our neighbors had to say about the Joe they know.

A Father (and Grandfather) Figure

Ed White grew up with Beau and Hunter Biden in the community of Montchanin, where both families lived. He fondly recounts childhood adventures rich with enough rascally mischief and charm to make even Mark Twain chuckle.

“Outside of our schooling, we were always together,” White says. “Whether it be jumping off a 20-foot limb over the Brandywine River, going to church on Sundays, playing sports every day, or just getting into trouble as normal kids do.

“All I can say is snowballs, eggs, and crab apples.”

A 1981 photo Biden gave Ed White, referring to him as his “third son.” Photo courtesy Ed White

White remembers one afternoon when he, Beau, Hunter and a few other kids donned ski goggles and shot at each other with BB guns in the front yard. It was one of the best times playing with the Biden boys—that is, until Mr. Biden got a phone call from the new neighbors a week later.

“Joe was told $850 worth of windows were shot out by a group of kids shooting at each other with BB guns,” White says. “It did not go over well.”

As the boys got older and progressed from “walking to skateboards to bikes to three-wheelers to an occasional joyride in a classic convertible,” White says there was one constant: Joe and Jill Biden’s love for their family and friends.

“There is no doubt they were tortured [by their kids] from time to time,” White says, “but they were great parents, always looking out for their children with the best intentions.”

The sentiment is echoed by John Rollins III, who attended Archmere Academy with the Biden brothers; although, the friendship started years before then.

“[Joe] just always had this really special bond with the boys,” Rollins says. “And it showed in the way he interacted not only with them, but also with their friends. We all became kind of family.”

Often, in the Biden’s backyard, friends of Beau and Hunter would gather for a game of football. If Joe were home, inevitably he’d come out from the house to play steady quarterback.

“He would get out there, throw the ball around and joke around with everybody,” Rollins says. “He was a good athlete. It was a real thrill for us to play with him. He was a senator at the time and was kind of a famous guy.”

In 1994, when he was in his mid-20s living in San Francisco, White wrote a letter to the senator thanking him for the guidance he had given him throughout his youth.

 “It was a letter I had to get off my chest,” White says. “Not expecting anything in return, I received the most beautiful letter from him that meant so much. I will forever be so appreciative for [his] guidance.

“Joe was always like a father figure to me, especially when my parents were going through their divorce.”

Biden gave White a sepia-toned photo from 1981. In it, a 12-year-old White poses, sitting in the senator’s leather office chair with Joe and young Hunter standing close-by. In the signature on the photo, Joe refers to White as “his third son.”

Another longtime family friend, Cindy Wilkinson, says Joe has a knack of putting people first and connecting with them.

A few years back, Wilkinson attended a fundraising event for the Biden Breast Health Initiative, a charity Jill Biden created. Serving as Vice-President at the time, Joe walked unexpectedly into the crowded room, passed Wilkinson, then double-backed shortly after.

“Cindy!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t recognize you in bangs! How are you?”

Wilkinson was caught off guard, then flattered. She had not seen him in years.

“Inside I was like, ‘Oh my God! My Dad didn’t even realize I just got bangs!’” she says. “I didn’t expect him to come back over to me. It wasn’t something he had to do, but he did. That’s who he is.”

Wilkinson also recounts times when the Bidens would attend their grandchildren’s events at The Tatnall School, where her children also attended. From her observations, Joe never requested exclusive seating or asked for special arrangements.

“He always went out of his way to be a grandparent—a normal grandparent—for his grandkids,”  Wilkinson says.

‘Just Joe’

Paula Janssen has also seen Joe function as the doting grandfather on many occasions.

After attending church at St. Joseph’s on the Brandywine when he was in town, Biden, then Vice-President, would often bring his grandchildren for lunch at J’s Café at Janssen’s Market, which Janssen’s family has owned and operated in Greenville since 1952.

Janssen remembers one visit in particular:

“My niece, Brianna, had turned 16 and started working at the store,” Janssen says. “On her very first day, her very first customer was Joe Biden [laughs]. She just thought of it as ‘Okay.’ And I’m thinking, ‘This is huge to have [the Vice President be] your very first customer. It was her first time using the register, and he was so patient with her.

“It was a really special moment for me. I don’t have children. My brother does. And my husband’s family has children at that age. It was just kind of fun to have the next generation have that experience.”

For Betsy LeRoy’s 60th Birthday, Biden signed a white stuffed dog—a substitute for her “most valued possession” she lost decades ago. Photo courtesy Betsy LeRoy

Also in Greenville Center, at Pizza By Elizabeths, owner Betsy LeRoy recalls one of her younger employees reacting in similar fashion as Janssen’s niece, but with a twist. It was the first year Biden served as Vice President.

“It was Christmas time, and one of our hostesses, Nikki, was working,” LeRoy says. “A man walked up to her and asked, ‘How long for a table?’ She said, “About 40 minutes.’ He said, ‘That’s fine.’ She asked his name, and he replied ‘Joe.’ She asked, ‘Just Joe?’ and he said ‘Yep!’

“A little while later, she was looking around the restaurant to see if any tables were emptying, and she saw the man standing talking with the secret service all around him. She looked at the other hostess and said, ‘I did not just do that, did I?’

“The next day I had a picture of Joe Biden laminated and left it at the hostess stand with a note that read: ‘Hostess cheat sheet: your Vice President!’”

Down the street at The Men’s Room Barber Shop, owner Joe Pacello has been cutting hair for 46 years.

“I’ve done pretty much every CEO, every head of every corporate guy that’s been in Wilmington,” Pacello says. “I’ve done governors, and I have had a lot of politicians come in over the years.

“The barber chair gave me an education that no school could ever give me.”

One of those politicians with whom Pacello shared knowledgeand laughswas Joe Biden, who was a client of The Men’s Room from 1974 to 2018.

“We had some good times,” Pacello says, adding with a chuckle. “He told me if he became President, he was going to make me Ambassador to Italy. That’s Little Italy—Union Street, Scott, Lincoln. So, we have a good rapport with each other.

“He’s a great guy. I can’t say enough about him… He’s a scholar and a gentleman.”

A Giving Nature

LeRoy remembers Biden taking time for her, when in 1973 as a young 12-year-old girl, she shyly approached the newly-elected senator at a fair and asked him to sign a small stuffed toy dog of hers. He did, of course.

“A few years later when I was in eighth grade, my English teacher gave us an assignment to identify what was our most prized possession, and then write a paper about why,” LeRoy recalls. “I chose that little dog and at the end of my paper I said, ‘because I know that one day, I will own the signature of the President of the United States.’ “

After college that stuffed dog disappeared, though the memory remained.

“It was my 60th birthday a few months ago, and I got so many cool, meaningful notes and presents,” says LeRoy. “But at the very end of the night, I opened this small box and on the inside was this….” (LeRoy shows a picture of the gift: a brand-new stuffed dog signed by then Presidential nominee Joe Biden.)

“Two of my oldest friends remembered how much I loved that dog, and that I didn’t have it anymore,” she continues. “They went to work behind the scenes, and I believe—through Jill—got this done for me: The most fun thing I’ve ever received.”

Historically, dogs have been a welcomed part of the Biden family. In 2018, to much media fanfare, it was announced that Joe and Jill would be adopting a German Shepherd pup (they would name Major).

When Biden went to Delaware Humane Association to adopt Major it was supposed to be a quick visit—instead he spent more than an hour engaging with the staff. Photo courtesy DHA/Stephanie Gomez Carter

Major will become the first shelter dog to live in the White House, according to Patrick Carroll, executive director at Delaware Humane Association, where the Bidens chose to make their adoption arrangements.

Carroll added that the media attention brought in some donations and one significant grant, from a  pet company, in honor of Major.

“It just sort of highlighted the work that we do every day,” Carroll says. “And you can’t beat that. That’s been fantastic.”

Carroll also recalls the day in November that Biden came in, with Major, to officially sign the adoption paperwork. Due to the former vice president’s schedule, it had to be done a few months after Major had moved in with the Bidens.

“On one hand, we wanted to make it just like any other adoption experience that we have,” Carroll says, “and on the other hand, it was [Joe].

“The one big thing that I remember is that he was clear with us that he didn’t have a lot of time. He said, ‘I’m going to need to get in do the adoption paperwork, sign the contract, do the photo, and then I need to go.’

“But in true Biden fashion, he stayed much longer. He was there for well over an hour. As he sat there and talked with staff, they kind of gathered around him. He was talking about dogs and life.

“People felt like it was very meaningful and special.”

In December of 2017, Paul Calistro got a chance to meet Major’s older brother, Champ, during another meaningful occasion. The large German Shepherd greeted him at the doorstep of the Biden abode.

Just 30 minutes earlier, Calistro had received a call on his personal phone at West End Neighborhood House, a community revitalization organization that has been operating in Wilmington since 1883. As executive director, Calistro has been working there for nearly three decades.

“I rarely answer my personal phone at work, but for some reason I picked up,” Calistro recalls. “On the other end was Vice President Biden, who said, ‘Hey, Paul, this is Joe Biden.’ And I was like, in shock. First of all, how the heck did he get my phone number?

“So, he said, ‘Paul, you know, I have never had the ability to give away a lot of money. But I’ve just written a book, and I have money, and I want to give it away. I really like what your organization is doing, especially your track team. We know it’s putting kids into college and giving them all kinds of experience. I wonder if you could come up to my house?’

“And I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Can you come in 30 minutes?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ and then I had to ask him for the address.”

Calistro was greeted at the door by Biden and Champ, who he describes as “giant.”

Biden invited Calistro into his house and into a room with a table that had around 20 envelopes atop it. Calistro says Biden asked him to keep what happened next a secret, but since it’s now part of public record thanks to Biden releasing his tax returns (while running for President), Calistro feels it’s safe to share the story.

Calistro continues, “He says, ‘Paul, if you look, when I was a U.S. senator, I was the poorest U.S. senator. And I probably was the poorest Vice President in the past 20 years. But I just sold the book. And I’m going to give away a million dollars today.’”

(Ed Note: Biden’s 2017 tax returns shows $1,013,762 in charitable contributions made that year, dispersed in various amounts to 25 organizations.)

Biden handed Calistro one of the envelopes, which included a check for $50,000 to be applied to West End’s track team.

“I was overwhelmed,” Calistro says.

“And as I was leaving, I could hear sirens blaring; the sound coming towards us,” Calistro continues. “I was walking out the door with him, and here came a fire truck up the driveway with all the lights off and the sirens. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’

“Joe said, ‘Don’t worry. That’s the local fire company. They’re coming in. I’m making a donation to them as well. They showed up one day when I had a kitchen fire, and I never forget people who helped me.’”

Another organization that Joe Biden literally helped provide “the roof over their heads” that year was Kingwood Community Center, which works to empower Wilmington’s Northeast and Riverside communities.

“Our donation came by way of Ashley Biden,” says Logan Herring, who since 2018 has served as CEO for Kingswood Community Center, REACH Riverside, and The Warehouse–three socially active nonprofits that compose the WRK Group in Wilmington.

“Ashley and I had [previously] partnered on a project at Kingswood, and she reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I have a question for you: What could you do at Kingswood with $100,000? I know you guys are in need.’

“And I said, ‘Your timing is perfect. We could do amazing things with $100,000, but I could really do what I need to do with $160,000.’”

A day before the call, Herring had received a budget to fix a major issue—their roof was leaking. The repairs estimate came in at $160,000.

“Long story short, a couple weeks later, we had a check for $160,000,” Herring says.

Joe Pacello of The Men’s Room was Biden’s barber from 1974 to 2018. Photo courtesy Joe Pacello

Perhaps it’s fitting that Ashley Biden was working with Herring. The families have a history of working together.

“Joe had an excellent relationship with my grandfather, [Rev. Otis Herring], who was a community leader back in the day,” Herring says. “And my grandfather was one of the first African American community leaders to endorse Joe.”

Those family ties extended another generation further when Herring and his infant son, L.J., ran into Biden and U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester on Market Street. It was the day after civil unrest and looters left Wilmington’s downtown in sad disarray and uncertain territory in June of this year.

“My son is three, we were walking down the street, I was trying to explain to him the reason why things were boarded up, why there was glass was on the ground,” Herring says. “As he is a Black boy growing up in America, I want to give him—as best as I possibly can—an understanding of the world.

“Joe and the congresswoman crossed the street and the caution line to come to speak with me and my son. We have a picture of Joe bending down on his knee to speak to L.J., who was standing between my legs.”

That photo ended up taking on a life of its own on social media, being tweeted by celebrities, and eventually used on a couple of Biden’s national campaign ads.

“Every time we drive by that corner where we interacted with Joe Biden, L.J. says, ‘Hey, that’s where we saw Joe Biden.’

“So it’s even more impactful to me having my son interact with him and know who he is,” Herring says. “That he is our President-elect a huge deal. And I don’t take it lightly.”

Yvonne Nass knows a thing or two of Biden’s looking out for Wilmington’s youth. Back in 1979, her daughter, Paula, graduated from Conrad High School and enrolled in some photography classes in Baltimore, which required her to take the train every weekday.

“As a concerned mom,” Nass says, recounting sending her daughter off at the Wilmington train station, “I told the conductor to keep her safe and watch out for her. And obviously, he agreed.

“Then on her return trip, Joe Biden got off the train with her. And at that point, he said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Mama, I will watch over her.’

“And it just made us both feel more comfortable. We had not met him before, but he reached out to us.”

“She never had an incident on that train. And, when they saw each other, he’d ask her how the classes were going.”

The Trademarks of Leadership

Bill Montgomery remembers being at the Wilmington Train Station in 1987 when Joe Biden announced his first run at the presidency. There was an air of excitement even back then, says Montgomery, who at the time was working as chief-of-staff for Council President Jim Baker.

“Joe always put forth the idea that you had to respect the other person’s opinion or the other side’s opinion, and not question the motives,” Montgomery says “He’s repeated that a lot in the last year. It’s not a new idea of his and it’s not a gimmick.

“I think of every everything I know about Joe, that’s the one thing that sticks with me and I think it’s kind of emblematic of the best of Delaware politics. It used to be called ‘The Delaware Way.’ I know that’s considered a bad term now, but I think it has merit to this day—listening to one another and trying to reason with one another and find solutions.”

Wilmington’s first woman to be elected citywide, Councilwoman At-Large Loretta Walsh, was entering her third year on council when Biden first ran for president. As a longtime friend, she appreciated his loyalty. As a politician, she admired his sense of egalitarianism.

“I noticed over the years, the way he treated people,” Walsh says. “He gave the CEO as much time as he gave the homeless person. And he didn’t differentiate between the haves and the have-nots, that I ever saw.

“I think the lesson that I really learned from him was—as you hear them say—politics is local. That was something he never forgot.

“You get to know the people that surround you all the time. And they become the people that have your back during elections.”

Katy Woo was one of those people.

In fact, Woo, was the fourth person hired in Biden’s Delaware office after he was elected U.S. Senator in 1972. She remembers starting at the end of February. It was just two months after Joe’s first wife, Neilia, and their one-year-old daughter, Naomi, were tragically killed in a car accident in Hockessin.

“It was a very fragile time for him,” Woo says, adding that she and her fellow employees quickly circled the wagons that first term.

“We were a very tight knit group,” Woos says, “a small group that really had the best interest of the senator.

“A lot of times, besides working nine to five, we were volunteering on weekends and doing whatever was needed. It was more like an extended family. We were trying to protect him.”

When asked to describe her former employee in three words, Woo offers the following: compassionate, honorable and frank.

“I haven’t seen or talked to him since his vice-presidential days,” Woo says. “But it seems like he is the same person where he is very frank about what he thinks and…will express his opinions, whether you agree with them or not.

“I think the media, in later years, would say he puts his foot in his mouth. But I think, generally, he is so well-spoken and very credible. And we all believed that he was extremely capable and would rise someday.”

Woo no longer lives in Delaware. She and her husband, S.B. Woo, the former Lt. Governor of Delaware, have migrated to warmer latitudes in Florida. Still, their ties to the First State—both with politics and friendships—remain intact.

“I am one of the originals,” Woo says of her time working for Biden. “And I feel very fortunate and flattered to have been associated with Joe.”

The Lion and the Mouse

Richard “Mouse” Smith was an original, too, in another sense.

Recently retired after 42 years working various jobs at the Port of Wilmington, Smith has also recently retired as president of the Delaware branch of the NAACP. His involvement in civil rights goes back five decades.

In 1962, Smith was a high school freshman when he met Biden. A college student, Biden was working part-time as a lifeguard at what was then known as Prices Run Pool.

Biden was the only White lifeguard working that year at a pool that predominantly attracted local Black residents.

“He went to the pool to learn about the culture of the Black community,” Smith says. “That was the beginning of his relationship with the Black community.”

“He was also there because he needed a job,” Smith adds.

Joe Biden with (l-r) Mike Harkins, Norman Oliver and Richard “Mouse” Smith. Photo courtesy Mike Harkins.

But the job didn’t start swimmingly, Smith says, and one afternoon Joe found himself in hot water with the Romans, one of the biggest gangs in Northeast Wilmington at the time—and one of several gangs that regularly attended the pool.

Smith explained that though the gangs then weren’t nearly as violent as today’s gangs, fist fights were common. And although the Romans had names that sounded more comic-book charactersCorn Pop, Smiley and Murt Wigginshe says they were known to carry knives and razors.

Another Roman, Sonny Strong, was named for his height and muscular physique, says Smith, “and if you looked at him, he was… scary.”

“Joe was having a confrontation [with the Romans] over rules,” Smith says. “And the rules would basically tell the different gangs in the pool how to act on the diving board.”

A disagreement with William L. Morris (aka Corn Pop), in particular, devolved into an exchange of verbal insults regarding family, which Smith calls “playing the Dozens.” Biden played along, then kicked Corn Pop out of the pool.

The Romans left, angry.

“Joe kind of stepped out of bounds,” Smith admits. “Those guys came back and told Joe they were going to kick his ass… they said they would cut him.”

Biden was concerned about what would happen after work and spoke to the pool manager. They discussed possibly calling the park police.

That’s when Biden took the first piece of advice from Smith (aka Mouse), who was a member of the 13th Street Stompers, a younger gang that were rivals to the Romans. Smith told Biden not to call park police.

“I said, ‘Joe, you done stood up to them’,” Smith says. “‘Just go home and come back tomorrow.’”

Biden took Smith’s advice and didn’t call the park police.

But Biden did eventually run into Corn Pop and other Romans after work on the way to his car. Three Romans were carrying straight razors. According to Biden, he had prepared for the possibility of an altercation by bringing six feet of metal chain from the pool’s maintenance room.

Biden recounted the showdown during a ceremony during the summer of 2019, in which Prices Run was renamed the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center. Biden said he told Corn Pop he would kick him out of the pool again if he broke the rules. But Biden also apologized for the insults.

“I didn’t know if that apology was going to work,” Biden said to the crowd of residents and dignitaries at the pool. “[Corn Pop] said, ‘You apologize to me?’

“I said, “I apologize—not for throwing you out—but I apologize for what I said.’

“[Corn Pop] said, ‘Okay,’ and closed the straight razor, and my heart began to beat again.”

The showdown between Corn Pop and Joe would end up becoming part of local Black community folklore.

“This incident gave him clout. By them putting a threat on him and him not backing off that threat, that made him a special type of White guy,” Smith adds. “He didn’t back down… He earned their respect.

“Joe came back to work the next day, and that’s when the relationship became strong with the Black community who went to that pool.”

Smith says that, between 1962 and 1969, he and Biden would regularly see each other on or around Market Street, outside the movie theater, burger joints, or outside Wilmington Dry Goods. Biden was in law school at the time, on the journey to becoming a public defender.

“On Sundays, Market Street belonged to the Black community,” Smith says. “Joe would drive down Market Street with his family and, if he saw somebody he knew, he’d stop and introduce them to his family. Then he’d ask if they were okay, were they having problems, and stuff like that.

“He always tried to look out for the Black community after he left that swimming pool.”

Smith would end up working on Biden’s campaign for U.S. Senator in 1972, building on the relationships the politician had begun as a lifeguard.

“I would take him to the Black houses in the projects,” Smith says. “I told him, ‘If you sit down and see a cockroach on the armrest or something, don’t move, just knock the roach off. If they give you a jar to drink out of with Kool Aid, then drink that juice. If a spring pop up out of the chair you’re sitting in, and it hurts, just move over. Just don’t jump out of the chair. Just be normal, and Black folks will like you.’

“If you look at some of the numbers he got running as a senator [in terms of support from Black voters], he got some of the best numbers of any other senator in those years.

“Joe knows how to tell jokes. He knows how to get up in your face. He knows how to make you comfortable… And he got the opinion of the Black community before he decided to make a go for Washington.”

The  Black community responded to his efforts.

In 1972, Joe Biden beat out incumbent J. Caleb Boggs to win his first U.S. senatorial election by just 3,162 votes (1% of the total count). He would go on to win the Senate in six more elections, all of them by 40,000 or more votes. 

 

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