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Vice President Joe Biden in a moment of reflection in the Oval Office. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
When Barbara Lewis lost her husband, Charles, to testicular cancer in 1978, the 32-year-old Delaware native had a 7-year-old daughter, a 2 ½-year-old son, no health benefits and no job. But she had one powerful asset: Sen. Joe Biden was in her corner.
The Democratic lawmaker grieved with her, personally assured her of his support and deployed his office to tackle the tedious but necessary paperwork to help her get on her feet. She experienced a heartfelt, personal connection coupled with constituent service that brought the best of politics to her at the worst of times.
She told her story amid the national outpouring of support for the vice president as he mourns his son Beau, who was taken by brain cancer at 46. As Beau lies in honor at Legislative Hall in Dover, Del., ahead of his funeral on Saturday, Lewis wants the vice president to know that some of the people he comforted in their grief years ago have not forgotten and are ready to give back.
“He has his friends here, and we are thinking about him,” she told Yahoo News in a telephone interview. “He never forgot us. He was always there for us. Now, in spirit, we are with him. We feel his pain.”
Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden embraces his son Beau before addressing delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. (Photo: Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/MCT/Getty)
Lewis went to high school with Biden’s sister, Valerie, and has had a lifelong acquaintance with the senator turned vice president. She is also my mother-in-law. She spoke by telephone from the cozy townhome she bought decades ago shortly after getting married, sharing new details of an old story that still brings tears to her eyes.
When Lewis’ husband died, Biden came to the viewing and the funeral. “He was just so supportive — told me, ‘If you need anything, you call me.’ He gave me his private number to call. He was just wonderful,” she said.
Had her husband passed away just two months later, Lewis would have been eligible for the late DuPont computer scientist’s medical benefits. Instead, she got nothing.
Biden’s office swept in, helping her through important paperwork.
“I didn’t work at the time, and I had these two little children under the age of 7,” she said. “Within a month, I had Social Security.”
The senator himself offered her a job. “He got on the phone, him and Valerie, wanted me to come work for him to run the volunteers for him when he ran for election,” Lewis said. “He said, ‘You need anything, my office is here for you.’”
When she heard about Beau, Lewis understood Biden’s grief. “It made me cry that he would have to go through this,” she said. “And I really feel bad for Beau’s wife. I was there, you know, with kids. She had him a little bit longer than I had Chuck, but I know…” Her voice choked up.
Lewis was 14 when she first met Biden in 1959. He was the handsome older brother of Valerie, her classmate and friend at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del.
“He was a heartthrob because he could drive. He would pick her up after school. Girls would wait, [and] say, ‘Oh, my God, he’s so handsome,’” Lewis remembered. She does not, however, recall what kind of car the outspoken Corvette fan drove. “His dad was a car salesman, so he came from not-money.”
Lewis’ father, Joseph DiMondi, was at one point one of the most powerful Democratic Party officials in Delaware. He and another Democratic power player “really liked Joe” and helped to guide Biden’s early career in local politics.
“There were big fundraisers,” she said, recalling one where “my mother and all her lady friends made a huge spaghetti dinner with hundreds of people at the big church — raised quite a bit of money.”
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) receives condolences after a memorial service in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 22, 1972, for his wife, Neilia, and their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi Christina, who perished in a car-truck crash. Biden’s two sons were hospitalized with serious injuries. (Photo: Bill Ingraham/AP)
Biden went on to win a Senate seat in November 1972, then suffered personal devastation just weeks after that victory when his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. His sons, Beau and Hunter, were hospitalized.
Two years later, in November 1974, tragedy struck Lewis’ family. Her father was driving the family to the hospital, where her mother needed to have “a very serious operation.” A car carrying two teenagers plowed into the family’s Plymouth. DiMondi was killed instantly. Lewis, pregnant with her son, spent four weeks recovering from her injuries.
The morning after the deadly crash, Lewis was lying in her hospital bed with four broken ribs, a busted collarbone and a shattered arm when a distraught Biden walked in.
“I remember vividly when Joe came in,” Lewis recalled. “He just came right in, and he said he couldn’t believe it that my dad was gone. He wanted to know whether there was something he could do for me.”
Biden laid out some of his personal philosophy of compassion in a May 17 speech to Yale graduates.
“A good life at its core is about being personal. It’s about being engaged,” he said. “It’s about being there for a friend or a colleague when they’re injured or in an accident, remembering the birthdays, congratulating them on their marriage, celebrating the birth of their child.
Vice President Biden comforts family members of Newtown school shooting victims at the White House in April 2013. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)
“It’s about being available to them when they’re going through personal loss. It’s about loving someone more than yourself, as one of your speakers has already mentioned. It all seems to get down to being personal.”
Lewis put it more simply: “He never forgot. He just never forgot.”