Who Was Joseph R. Biden, Sr., Joe Biden's Father?

Biden Sr. lived a life filled with challenges to overcome.

Joe Biden
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Current presidential hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden Jr (opens in new tab). (opens in new tab) often mentions in interviews how profound his family's influence has been on him. This is especially true of his father, after whom he's named: Joseph R. Biden Sr (opens in new tab). (opens in new tab), who passed away in 2002. Born in Baltimore and raised in Wilmington, DE, Biden Sr. lived a life filled with challenges, including a period of poverty with his young family.

Biden Jr. frequently mentions his father while he's on the campaign trail, including the quote that has informed his life: "My dad always said, 'Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.'" It's become an important part of Biden's campaign, both as VP to President Barack Obama and now in 2020.

Joseph Biden Sr. fell on hard times after World War II.

Biden Sr. was initially wealthy, "sailing yachts off the New England coast, riding to the hounds, driving fast cars, flying airplanes." In 1941, Biden Sr. married Jean (maiden name Finnegan) from Scranton, PA. Biden Jr. was the oldest of four and portrays their time in Scranton as idyllic. Biden Sr. worked for a company that made sealant for merchant marine ships during World War II, but had difficulty finding work in the decades that followed.

As a result, the family went through financial difficulties. For a time, the children even went to live with their maternal grandparents. The family ended up moving to a suburb of Wilmington, and Biden Sr. worked initially selling used cars.

That didn't stop his children from experiencing some luxuries and having fun. His sister Valerie Biden Owens said (opens in new tab) she always had nice dresses for school dances. The only difference was that her parents bought them on layaway.

Their father extended the same comforts to his oldest son. When Biden Jr. was a student at the University of Delaware, attendees weren't permitted to have cars on campus. You could say some rules were to be broken, as Biden Sr. continually loaned vehicles for weekend excursions to his struggling college student kid.

An old classmate from college recalled the not-so-legal exchange to The New York Times (opens in new tab)saying, "Every weekend, somehow, Joe ended up with a car. It was always a convertible. Besides being very cool and dressing right, showing up in a convertible he had us all beat eight ways from Sunday."

Biden Sr.'s influence on his son was profound.

Biden Jr. recounted a story about his father quitting a job that he felt morally opposed to:

"In his autobiography, he tells the story of his father quitting a job as sales manager for an auto dealership because the owner, who liked to reward his employees and customers with silver dollars, decided to amuse himself at the dealership’s Christmas party by spilling out a bucket of silver dollars on the dance floor to watch his workers scramble to scoop up the coins."

Biden Jr. explained that he learned that a job could embody both dignity and respect, instead of simply being a paycheck. In fact, when Biden Jr. became a senator (and after the tragic deaths of his first wife and daughter (opens in new tab)), “[Biden Sr.] gave up car sales and went into real estate,” according to Biden's younger sister Valerie Biden Owens. “He didn’t want a United States senator to have a used-car salesman for a dad.”

Biden Sr. cared deeply about his son's campaign efforts. He appeared on stage at many rallies (opens in new tab) alongside his son and went door-to-door for him. His father was so involved some citizens mistook Biden Sr. as the candidate since Biden Jr. was so young compared to the competition. The pair soon started wearing buttons (opens in new tab) to signify who was who that read, "I'm Joe Biden Sr." and "I'm Joe Biden U.S. Senator."

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Biden Jr. also saw the impacts of alcohol on his family (opens in new tab): Biden Sr., drank, and his mother's family had issues with alcohol. His brother Frankie and son Hunter (opens in new tab) have also dealt with addiction. "There are enough alcoholics in my family," Biden Jr. said in 2008, of why he doesn't drink at all.

Biden Sr. passed away in 2002.

Biden Sr. was a longstanding advocate of his son. In 1972, when Biden was 30 years old, Sr. even "appeared onstage at rallies with his son and went door-to-door for him. With his senatorial bearing and his creased suits, many voters mistook him for the candidate, who looked barely old enough to vote."

His obituary appeared in The Baltimore Sun (opens in new tab), and noted that Biden Sr. had been in declining health in weeks prior to his death but wasn't specific about the cause. He died in Wilmington at Biden Jr.'s home. His wife passed away eight years later in 2010 (opens in new tab).

And it's obvious that Biden Jr's father is still on his mind. In 2020, Biden Jr. wished his father a happy Father's Day, saying, "As my father believed, there’s no higher calling for a woman or a man than to be a good mother or a good father."

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Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.