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by elizabeth e. thorp | April 25, 2014 | People
The Second Lady schools us on her passion for teaching, her commitment to military families, and how her love of family and friends keeps her grounded.
Naturally, one does quite a bit of research before interviewing the second lady of the United States. When Dr. Jill Biden graciously agreed to be on our cover, I talked with close family, friends, and associates of the Bidens, including Sonia “Sonny” Schorr Sloan, a lifelong family friend, who worked with the vice president on his bid for Newcastle County Council in Delaware almost 45 years ago. When I spoke with Sloan, the first thing she said to me was, “You’re interviewing Dr. Biden? You are in for such a treat. You will adore her.” I had never heard this about an interviewee—how I would just adore the subject, especially one with such gravitas. It struck me.
I was indeed in for a treat. Our interview took place in Biden’s homey office in the Old Executive Office Building after her Capitol File photo shoot. She was engaging, very low-key, and friendly to the myriad of folks who were milling about. At 62 years of age, Biden is fit and as lovely as ever.
During my call with Sloan, she reiterated that the Bidens have very strong ties to their friends and causes in Delaware and, “When you’re in their home, they’re no different than anyone else.” I certainly felt that in Dr. Biden’s office.
Second lady Dr. Jill Biden stands in the hallway outside her office at the Old Executive Office Building.
You’re the first-ever second lady of the United States to have a paying job while holding this position.
When we were elected I said to Joe, “You know I have to continue teaching.” He said, “Of course!” So four days after the inauguration, I was in the classroom. I used to teach at a community college in Delaware, and I’m now teaching at Northern Virginia Community College.
When did you know you wanted to be an educator?
I realized it when I was an undergrad at University of Delaware. I knew that a lot of kids could not read well. And reading is such a big part of my life… so I decided to become a reading specialist. First, I got my degree in English, then I got my master’s in English, and then my doctorate.
All while you were raising a family.
[Laughs] Yes, it took me a long time! I tell the students that I teach at the community college—who are working, going to school, raising kids—I tell them, “I’ve done that. I’ve been in your spot. I understand.” I know how tough it is for them when they’re dealing with things outside of the classroom.
Related to that, tell me about the women’s mentoring project at Northern Virginia Community College?
When I started at NOVA one of the things I wanted to do was to help women who are returning to school. I started the Women’s Mentoring Project, now in its fifth year. We pair women who are over 30 with a faculty member, and we have 40 faculty members who volunteer and have two or three mentees. We do workshops and trainings, help them get scholarships, write essays.
Do you have mentees?
Last year, I helped a woman write an essay to George Mason University so she could transfer. She had been homeless, living in her car with her kids. She got into a shelter. Someone suggested NOVA. She was in our program, she got a scholarship, and now she’s at George Mason getting her degree in accounting. This is what community college is all about.
How do you balance your public and private lives? Are you grading papers in the motorcade?
[Laughs] I have papers with me at all times. I’m constantly grading. I’m just like every other American woman who is working and has to create a balance between her work world and home world. I’ve been a teacher for 33 years, so I tell my own kids, “Organization is the key,” and I try to live that.
Tell us about the importance of community colleges.
I could go on and on about this. After we were elected, one of the great things for me is that this administration focuses on community colleges. What they’re doing now is trying to show how affordable it is to get a community college education, then transfer to a four-year school.
I hear you’re called “Dr. B.”
They do call me Dr. B. Not all of my students know I’m second lady. It’s so funny. One of my students ran up to me at the end of the semester and said, “I saw you on TV!” Sometimes students will ask, “Are you related to the vice president?” I say, “Yes, he’s one of my relatives.” I try to keep my two roles separate, and my students respect that.
How hard is it to get an A from Dr. B?
I’d like to think I’m a tough teacher, but I hope my students say I’m fair. I do push them… I make them write, rewrite, and rewrite.
Both you and the vice president still have very strong ties to Delaware. Can you tell me about the Biden Breast Health Initiative?
It started in the early 1990s. Four of my friends had breast cancer at the same time, so I thought, I’m an educator, a teacher, I have to do something. I started a program for which we went into high schools in Delaware and taught young girls how to do breast self-exams and the importance of good health practices. We wanted to take that information home to moms and grandmoms, and create a dialogue. We held health fairs and taught preventative care. We focus on education and early detection. It’s so important for every woman to practice breast self-exams.
Biden speaks at a veterans event at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas this past February.
You and the vice president have been married for…
Going on 37 years. It’s hard to believe. How are you able to focus on being a couple when you are both so incredibly busy?
We really make time for one another. When he comes home at night, no matter what time, I light candles on the table; we spend time together. This morning, I had to get up early so I made toast and coffee, and we just sat and talked. Sometimes you just have to grab those moments. We make time for us, and we make time for our family. Every Sunday I make family dinner; we’ve done that for years and years. The kids really look forward to it.
I’ve seen you and the vice president at some of my daughters’ soccer games on weekends. Do you both babysit the grandchildren?
[Laughing] Oh sure, the kids always stay overnight! While we’re here, we have Hunter and Kathleen’s three kids. Last weekend I had the kids. Hallie [the Bidens’ daughter-in-law] wanted to go running, and she asked if she could bring the kids over in the morning. I said, “Sure, no problem.” And there they were, a quarter to seven on a Sunday morning!”
Perhaps you were thinking more along the lines of 10 o’clock?
I was, because it was a Sunday. [Laughs]
While visiting Lee Hall Elementary School in Newport News, Biden talks with fourth grader and military child Jaelin Franco.
The vice president asked you to marry him several times; he was determined.
Is it true that the tipping point for you was the boys? That you fell in love with those kids?
I did. I did. They were just so beautiful, so wonderful. I did fall in love with the boys. It just fit. I had to be sure; that’s why I waited five times.
Also, you were very young.
Yes, I was 25, and it was a lot to take on. Really, it just worked. They wanted a mommy, and I wanted to love them.
You’re a Blue Star Mom.
You and the first lady are very involved in a partnership supporting military families and have a new focus on caregivers. Can you tell us more about that?
The caregiver part of it is so important. The president signed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Service Act in 2010, while these wars were winding down, and we saw many wounded warriors coming home. One story that always sticks in my mind was of two brothers from Michigan. One took off time from his job to help his brother who was seriously injured. The Caregivers act gave him the ability to leave his job, but then to come back to it. That made all the difference to the other brother. With Joe’s parents, they came to live in our home for seven months before his dad died. We took care of him; there’s no one like family to do those personal things and give them love—then his mom, too. We took care of all four of our parents. It’s one of the great legacies, I think, that this administration will have. That they took care of people by the Caregivers act and also the Affordable Care Act.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Biden attend an event to announce a new report regarding military spouse employment.
It’s widely known that you and the first lady have a warm relationship. Can you tell us a little bit about how you work together?
From the very first meeting that Michelle and I had together, we just clicked. She said to me: “What issues do you think that you’re going to be interested in working on?” I said, “I would like to work with military families.” She said, “Oh, that’s what I want to work on, too.” So right away, we had this instant bond, and that was something we decided to work on together.
How often do you see one another?
We do a lot of things together. My grandchildren and her children are in school together. So a lot of times we’re sitting on the benches, watching basketball or other sports, or we meet for dinner at somebody’s house. It’s just a nice thing. It’s like when you have a friend that maybe you haven’t seen in a while, and when you see one another again, you start where you left off. I feel that way with her, and, I think, she feels that way with me. No matter what we’re working on or what groups we’re in front of, we’re always happy to see one another. It is just a nice, warm friendship.
I have always been struck about how emotional it must be to send a child to a war zone. Probably more so for you, knowing the gritty truth of what was going on in Iraq. How did you cope?
That was one of the toughest times of my life. It was a month before we were elected. In that same weekend, Beau left for deployment and my mother died. And I was campaigning. When I was at Beau’s deployment ceremony, the wife of the general sitting next to me just slipped a prayer in my hand. And I said that prayer [starts tearing up] every day. I don’t care if I was writing on my blackboard, or what I was doing. I’m telling you, it never leaves your mind that you have a son in a war zone.
What else helped you get through it?
People did such kind things. My church put Beau’s name in the bulletin to pray for him. Beau had a friend who went to Hallie’s house in a snowstorm and shoveled their driveway at 6 am; never said a word, just walked away. Bringing it back to the first lady, we decided to work on military families. That’s what we’re trying to get Americans to do… to support and honor military families. Commit to an act of kindness, no matter what it is… I hope that we’ve made life better for members of the military. That was our goal.
Thank you so much for your time. This has been amazing. I don’t know how you do everything you do.
I know, but it’s so interesting! What could I give up? It’s so great for me; I get to do so many different and wonderful things… Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m going to tell all my friends!
photography by Melanie Dunea; styling by pascale lemaire for the artist agency; hair and makeup by connie tsang for the artist agency