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Colleagues see a caring, giving Jill Biden
Before last Saturday, Jill Biden managed to maintain a certain anonymity.
When students in her English classes at Delaware Technical and Community College asked her if she was related to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., she would simply say yes, without elaborating.
And now, with her husband running for vice president beside Barack Obama, the candidate's wife and college professor has no intention of abandoning her previous life.
On Tuesday, she plans to resume her classes at the college in Stanton, where she has taught for 15 years.
Friends and colleagues are betting she will continue to teach even if Obama and Biden win the election in November. "I know if there's any way that she could come back and teach, I know she would do it in a second," said Charlotte Brainard, a friend and fellow English teacher at Delaware Tech.
Brainard and other colleagues said yesterday that Jill Biden, 57, never seems too busy to take a few extra minutes with a student. Or sit her family down each Sunday for dinner. Or help a friend. Or start a project that needs a leader.
When a close friend of Brainard's was struggling with her four children after her husband deployed to Kuwait two years ago, Jill Biden, who had never met the woman, showed up at her front door with a cooked turkey and all the trimmings, dessert, and a bouquet of flowers.
" 'I heard that your husband was deployed, and I thought I could give you a break and bring over dinner,' " Biden told the woman, according to Brainard.
Her interest in military families only increased after campaigning with her husband this year.
The Bidens' older son, Beau, Delaware's attorney general and an Army captain, is scheduled to deploy to Iraq this year with the Delaware National Guard.
In February, she joined Delaware Boots on the Ground, a small nonprofit of fewer than 30 people that raises money to help military members and their families with problems the military does not cover, such as paying electric bills or helping with back-to-school supplies for children, cofounder Shirley Brooks said.
The Biden name was an asset in itself: Jill Biden knew business owners and politicians who could donate larger sums and raise the organization's profile.
But she didn't stop there. When she suggested they have a fund-raiser during the week of the Fourth of July, she helped decorate big water jugs to collect dollars and change and sat at tables in local grocery stores to ask for donations, Brooks said.
She never introduced herself by name, telling shoppers she was simply a Boots on the Ground volunteer.
Before Jill Biden, the organization had only $1,500. After one week of fund-raising, the group had more than $30,000, Brooks said.
"When she came to us initially, we thought she was just going to lend us her name," Brooks said. "But it turns out that she was a volunteer who got down into the trenches with us to fund-raise."
The oldest of five daughters, Jill Tracy Jacobs was born in Hammonton, N.J., and raised in Willow Grove, Montgomery County. Her father, Donald, was a banker who died in 1999. Her mother, Bonnie, was a stay-at-home mother and still lives in Pennsylvania.
Even in high school, when teenagers tend to focus on their own drama, real and imagined, Jill saw outside of herself, said Liz Leonard, who graduated with Jill from Upper Moreland High School in 1969. She helped plan the Thanksgiving Day Dance and the "Sophomore Hop," and she always remembered when her friends had big exams coming up.
"She always made you feel good," said Leonard, a retired medical assistant from Willow Grove. "She was always there rooting you on, no matter what, no matter whether it was for an exam or at a football game."
Jill Jacobs first met Joe Biden at a fund-raiser in 1973, where he shook her hand. Two years later, Biden was in an airport or a train station and saw a beautiful blond woman in an advertisement for a park in Wilmington.
Jill, then a senior at the University of Delaware, had agreed to model in the shot as a favor for a friend, said Chris Mather, Jill Biden's new press secretary.
As Mather tells it, Joe Biden's brother Frank knew Jill, and gave Joe her phone number, saying he thought she was a woman the young senator might like.
By then, it had been three years since Biden's first wife, Neilia, and his infant daughter, Naomi, were killed when a truck broadsided their station wagon. Biden's two sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the crash.
Biden called Jill the day after getting her number and asked if she wanted to go out that night. Jill said she had plans. He asked her to change them, explaining he was in town for only one night.
She changed her plans, but told him she was not impressed with his title and he should feel lucky enough that she had voted for him, according to a biography issued by the campaign.
The couple dated for two years. Then in 1977, Beau and Hunter, then 7 and 6, walked into the bathroom where their father was shaving and said, "We think we should marry Jill," Jill Biden told a reporter last year.
He proposed to her five times before she finally accepted.
"It was Joe, the boys, and the state of Delaware," Jill Biden told the News Journal in Wilmington last year. "And I had to take my time."
The couple married June 17, 1977, at the U.N. chapel in New York City. In 1981, Joe and Jill Biden had a daughter, Ashley. Jill took time away from teaching to raise the family but returned to school to earn several advanced degrees: a master's in English from Villanova University in 1987, a master's in education with a specialty in reading from West Chester University in 1991, and a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware in 2007. She wrote her dissertation on how to retain students in community colleges.
Education has remained Jill Biden's passion. She taught for 13 years in the public schools, working as an English teacher and a reading specialist as well as a part-time teacher in the adolescent program at the Rockford Center, a psychiatric hospital.
At the college level, she prefers to teach English composition and developmental writing courses and meets with her students individually often throughout the year. She's hands-on in the classroom. It's not uncommon, Brainard said, to see her standing beside students who need help, leaning down over their work.
"Jill takes time to get to know her students," said Frances Leach, dean of instruction at Delaware Tech, "and to learn their stories."
When Joe Biden was campaigning during the primary season this year, before dropping out of the race, Jill kept her full teaching schedule and traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early-primary states on the weekends.
She told Brainard she has learned how to change in the cramped bathrooms of planes and trains, stockings and all.
Despite her hurried schedule, she always looked put together, Brainard said. Even her desk is neat, decorated with family pictures and fresh flowers, Brainard said.
She also leaves herself time for a daily five-mile run.
At campaign events, she has a knack for finding people struggling to attract attention to have a question answered, said Richard Vague, a Philadelphia investor and longtime Joe Biden fund-raiser and supporter.
She might not get off so easy with students' questions any longer, but those who know her don't expect much else to change. The Secret Service is working with campus security at Delaware Tech in anticipation of her return.
Even with her husband in the limelight this week, she has declined interview requests.
"She is about the most down-to-earth person I've ever been around," Vague said. "She never let any of the hoopla stand in the way of her being completely nice to everybody she encounters, from the young kids to the wait staff. . . . She is just as gracious and as genuine as they come."
Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell
at 610-627-0352 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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