Chapter 1: A Natural Leader A Natural Leader
Something about Joey Biden made other kids want to follow him. It wasn’t the way he looked or sounded, because he was small for his age, and he stuttered. But if Joey was your friend, you could count on him. And he was a decent person, fair to everyone. And it was a lot of fun to be around him.
In Joey’s neighborhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, “fun” meant sports like football and baseball, played in the street or on a vacant lot. Since Joey was small, at first the older boys didn’t want to let him play. But he kept pestering until they let him try, and he turned out to be quick and bold. “Give me the ball!” was his favorite sentence.
Of course Joey got knocked down, but he got right up again. That was what his father advised, as a general principle in life: if you get knocked down, get up.
“Fun” also included riskier games, and Joey was quick and fearless in these, too. One time, Joey and an older boy, Jimmy Kennedy, were playing near a construction site. Jimmy dared Joey to run under a moving dump truck, never imagining that Joey would take the dare. But as soon as the words were out of Jimmy’s mouth, Joey ran at the truck, darted between the front and rear wheels—and came out safe on the other side.
Joey began life in Scranton, born at St. Mary’s Hospital on November 20, 1942. Catherine Eugenia Finnegan (Jean) and Joseph Robinette Biden (Joe) had just gotten married the year before, and they were living with Jean’s parents, Ambrose and Geraldine Finnegan. Jean and Joe named their first baby Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., after his father. They called him Joey.
Joe Biden Sr. had met Jean Finnegan in high school, when his family moved to Scranton from Wilmington, Delaware, in the 1930s. Joe was tall, handsome, and well-dressed, with smooth manners. Jean was only five feet one inch tall, but she was spirited, and she was the high school’s homecoming queen. She’d grown up in Scranton, where her father was an advertising salesman for the local newspaper.
When Joey was little, Joe Sr. could support his family in fine style. He worked for his uncle Bill Sheen, who sold a waterproof sealant to the United States government for their merchant marine ships. The year before Joe was born, on December 7, 1941, the United States had entered World War II, and Sheen Armor Company’s business was thriving.
Successful and generous, “Big Bill” Sheen encouraged his nephew Joe to enjoy expensive sports, like polo and riding to the hounds. Joe and his cousin Bill Sheen Jr. were like brothers. They drove new cars—Cadillacs for Bill, Buicks for Joe—and flew private planes.
The city of Scranton also prospered, while the US and its allies were fighting World War II. Scranton was a major center for coal mining and railroads. For the war effort, the US needed tremendous amounts of coal, a major energy source at that time. And freight trains were the main means of hauling coal and the steel needed to build tanks and airplanes.
Joe Biden Sr. did well at his uncle’s Sheen Armor Company. They sent him to Boston to head up a branch, and the Bidens lived in a four-bedroom Colonial house in the suburbs. In 1944, Joey’s sister, Valerie, was born. On weekends and holidays, Joe flew his young family back to Scranton to be with the relatives. Airplane travel was too pricey for most people in those days, but not for the Bidens.
After World War II ended in 1945, the demand for Sheen Armor Company’s products dried up. However, Joe Sr. had saved enough money to open a furniture store with a friend. Unfortunately, the “friend” took the money for the store and ran off. To Jean Biden’s dismay, Joe refused to hunt down his thieving partner and press charges, because he’d been a friend.
Joe Sr. had a little money left, and he went in with another partner to start a crop-dusting company. They bought an airfield on Long Island, New York, and the Bidens moved there to live. But before long that business failed too. In 1948, Jean Biden took Joey and Valerie and moved back to Scranton, to her parents. Joe gave up and followed soon afterward.
Returning to Scranton was the practical thing for the Bidens to do, but it was a big comedown for Joe Sr. to live off his in-laws. He had to take any job he could get. Jean’s brothers couldn’t resist rubbing it in a bit, making smart remarks about Joe’s upper-class manners. Edward Blewitt Finnegan, who stuttered, sarcastically called Joe Sr. “L-L-L-Lord Joseph.”
Years later Joe Biden Jr. would realize how humbling the return to Scranton had been for his father. But at the time, five-year-old Joey was perfectly happy to move in with his grandparents and his uncle Edward Blewitt. Joey and Valerie loved their uncle, who was kind to the children. They didn’t care that everyone called him “Boo-Boo” because of the way he pronounced “Blewitt.”
The Finnegan household also included Joey’s great-aunt Gertie Blewitt, his grandmother’s sister. They all lived in a two-story shingled house at 2446 North Washington Avenue, in the Green Ridge neighborhood. Green Ridge was at the end of the electric streetcar line that ran from downtown Scranton. The neighbors were mostly working-class families, of Irish descent like the Finnegans.
The families in Green Ridge were mostly Catholic, too, with immigrant roots. Their parents and grandparents had left Poland, or Ireland, or Italy and came to Pennsylvania to work in the anthracite coal mines. Priests and nuns were a familiar sight on the street, and the children always greeted them respectfully. “Good afternoon, Father. Good afternoon, Sister.” It was taken for granted that Joey would go to a Roman Catholic school, like the other children in his neighborhood, so he started school at Saint Paul’s.
Joey quickly bonded with three other Green Ridge boys: Charlie Roth, Tommy Bell, and Larry Orr. They spent Saturdays, their free day, together. They could roam as far as Green Ridge Corners, where they spent their pocket money on penny candy and caps for their cap pistols, or they could explore the always interesting city dump.
A fascinating feature of Scranton for kids was the “breakers,” steep piles of dirt and rock left over from coal mining. This debris was heaped up in mountains larger than the pyramids of ancient Egypt. However, the breakers were not as solid as those pyramids. And traces of coal left in the rock easily caught fire, creating slow-burning furnaces under their slopes.
One day Joey and his friends were playing around a breaker, built up by the Marvine Coal Company, in Green Ridge. Charlie bet Joey five dollars that he didn’t dare to run up to the top. Maybe that seemed like a safe bet to Charlie, because the boys knew it was dangerous to climb on the loosely balanced pile. You could fall through the surface, far enough to break your neck. Or you could stumble into a hidden pit of fire.
But Joey couldn’t resist a dare, especially for such big money. He charged at the mountain and kept going, as nimble as a mountain goat, until he reached the top. Inspired, Tommy followed his brave buddy up the slope.
Such a daredevil boy as Joey Biden might not seem like the type to take care of his little sister. But Joey considered Valerie, two years younger, his special charge. Not that he would stay home and babysit her—he took her along on his neighborhood adventures. As Valerie described it years later, “From the time I opened my eyes, he was there, he had his hand out and said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’?”
Joey was Valerie’s hero, and she was his loyal sidekick. He showed her how to throw a baseball and how to jump for the basketball net. He taught her to vault onto the back fender of his bicycle so she could ride everywhere with him. Years later Joey would include his much younger brothers, Jimmy and Frank, in his adventures with Valerie.
Every Sunday morning the Finnegans and Bidens went to Saint Paul’s Catholic Church for Mass, like most of the neighborhood. In the afternoon, before Sunday dinner, the Finnegans, the Bidens, and assorted friends would gather at Grandpop Finnegan’s house. The men sat at the kitchen table, talking sports and politics. As Joey grew older, he started to hang around the kitchen and listen, fascinated.
Grandpop and his relatives and friends argued about President Truman, a Democrat, and whether he’d been right to fire General MacArthur. They argued about General Eisenhower, a hero of World War II but unfortunately a Republican, who ran for president in 1950. They argued about how the government treated workers who were striking. They argued about local politicians, especially which ones you could trust and which ones you couldn’t.
Joey didn’t always understand the fine points of the men’s discussion, but he did take in some key ideas. First, that politics was important. There weren’t any politicians in the family, except for a former Pennsylvania state senator on Geraldine Finnegan’s side. But what happened in politics had the power to change people’s lives, for the better—or for the worse.
And second, Joey learned that politics could be—should be—a noble calling. In politics, as in the rest of life, your word should be your bond.
In those years, the Bidens and the Finnegans didn’t know any big-time politicians. The closest Joey got to a national politician, when he was growing up, was at a Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Former president Harry Truman was grand marshal of that parade, and he rode through Scranton in a convertible with the top down. The Scranton Tribune printed a photo of the parade showing both Truman and—in the crowd on the sidelines, fuzzy but recognizable—young Joey Biden.
Growing up, Joey learned certain values: tell the truth, say your prayers, keep your promises, be loyal to family and friends. He did not learn to be careful, or to stay out of trouble. One winter day, Joey and his friend Larry stood outside the Finnegan house, throwing snowballs at passing cars.
Joey was a natural athlete, with a good throwing arm. One of his snowballs went right through a truck’s open window, smacking the driver in the head. When the man jumped out, furious, the boys scurried up the steps of Joey’s house and in the door.
The driver ran up the steps after the boys, but Aunt Gertie fended him off. Without waiting to find out what had happened or whose fault it was, she swung her broom at the man. “Get out of here!”
Joey knew that his family would always stick by him, even when he was wrong. And he understood that he, in turn, needed to take care of his family.
Besides being small for his age, Joey had a stutter, like his uncle Boo-Boo. When he was in kindergarten, his parents sent him to a speech pathologist, but that didn’t seem to help. However, the stutter didn’t bother Joey when he was with friends, especially playing sports. It didn’t bother his friends, either. It was just part of Joey, like his blue eyes.
Saturday afternoons, Joey and his Green Ridge pals would often go to the movies at the Roosevelt Theater, usually Westerns or Tarzan movies. Inspired by the adventures on the screen, Joey and his friend Tommy would climb onto the roof of a neighborhood garage. They’d leap from that roof to the next garage, and the next, and so on until some adult yelled at them.
Another daredevil game was running on the big pipes across the Lackawanna River. The river in those days was filthy with sewage and coal-mining waste, and the boys’ parents had told them to stay away from it. “But as long as we didn’t fall in,” Joe Biden wrote years afterward, “who would know?”
After World War II, jobs became hard to find in Scranton. Joe Biden Sr. finally decided he’d do better in Wilmington, Delaware. He’d lived in that city before, and he’d heard that Wilmington industries were doing well after the war. He took a job there cleaning boilers for Kyle Heating and Air-Conditioning. Wilmington was more than 140 miles from Scranton, but Joe Sr. drove back and forth for almost a year without complaining.
In 1952, when Joey was almost ten, his parents decided to move the whole family to Wilmington. It must have been hard for Jean Biden, who’d grown up in Scranton, to leave her town—all her family and friends and neighbors. But she didn’t complain either.