Beau Biden’s public work has been well documented. It’s the private stories that are now coming to light. This is one of them.
Two years ago in August, two men arrived at St. Anthony’s Church in Wilmington for the wake for a beloved local priest who died just a few minutes shy of his 100th birthday.
The men were offered a chance to walk in first — ahead of the line of other mourners — but the men insisted on waiting their turn. And so they did. Vice President Joe Biden and his oldest son, Attorney General Beau Biden, paid their respects to the priest, Father Roberto, just like everyone else that day.
Except, of course, they were Bidens.
Afterwards the Bidens emerged from the church to find dozens of people who wanted to shake hands and say hello. Many people walked up to the pair as if they were close personal friends with the Bidens, starting sentences by saying, “Do you remember me from …”
That day the vice president did what he does: embrace people, kiss their foreheads, pull them close and whisper in their ear. The younger Biden was just as approachable, but in his own way. He was quieter and less bold, but his face reflected his emotion — a quiet kindness that sets people at ease. Soon, Beau Biden saw a face he knew. He said to the vice president, “Dad, I want you to meet someone.”
Two years later, in the very same place outside the church, we watched Saturday as the Biden family held hands and walked toward the flag-draped casket to say goodbye to Beau Biden. Thousands of people watched. President Obama delivered a eulogy.
“We don’t have kings or queens or lords,” the president said. “We don’t have to be born into money to have an impact. We don’t have to step on one another to be successful. We have this remarkable privilege of being able to earn what we get out of life with the knowledge that we are no higher than anybody else or no lower than anybody else.”
When Delawareans stood for hours for their turn to say goodbye to Beau Biden, it reminded me of how, in August 2013, he and his father waited in line at this church. None of us knew at the time that Beau Biden was ill. A few weeks later the public learned he was admitted to a hospital in Texas known for its expertise in treating cancer.
I don’t profess to know the Bidens personally. I interviewed Beau Biden a few times for stories. I spoke one-on-one to the vice president just once, for a brief moment. Joe Biden pulled me aside at St. Anthony’s Church in 2013 and told me he liked a detail I included in a story I wrote about the late Father Roberto. The vice president also said he wanted to hug me, and before I could say a word he told me would not hug me because he knew journalists must maintain a reputation; reporters should not hug politicians. I thanked him for reading the story, but I was too surprised by what he said to say much else. We did not hug.
We all know the elder Biden’s tendency to speak off the cuff. It’s often viewed as a political liability or a way to connect to people. Wearing emotions so publicly — both joy and sadness — is rare. And anyone who saw Beau and Joe Biden together — even once — witnessed the love of a father and a son that devoted themselves to family.
Throughout this week, we heard stories of how Beau Biden tried to hold onto to a humble way of life, even as his dad became a national figure. A theme emerged: He was a man who listened when other people spoke because he knew the importance of hearing another person’s truth.
And when people in Delaware talk about this being a community, not a state, we can understand why people from all walks of life waited their turn in a line to say goodbye to Beau Biden. When you see yourself as part of a community, you know it is possible — and necessary — not to separate yourself from your neighbors. We need each other.
Nichole Dobo is a fellow and education technology reporter at The Hechinger Report, a NYC-based nonprofit news organization that covers education nationally. She formerly worked as a reporter in Delaware at The News Journal and several newspapers in Pennsylvania. She lives in Wilmington, Delaware. You can email her: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on twitter: @HechingerReport