THE ROOTS ARE REAL
Joe Biden’s lifelong friends share memories, dismiss talk of Scranton being a political prop for the presidential hopeful
Aging fades memories, but the day Joe Biden moved away from Scranton lingers with Larry Orr.
Almost 70 years ago, Orr and Charlie Roth, two of Joe Biden’s close elementary school friends, watched the Biden family pack their car. As the car pulled away, they sadly waved goodbye from the front lawn of 2446 N. Washington Ave., where the Bidens lived with his maternal grandparents. Like many Scranton residents in the early 1950s, Biden’s father, Joseph R. Biden Sr., struggled to find a good job here, but found one in Delaware, where the Biden family lived earlier. “I’ll never forget it,” said Orr, 77, a retired union electrician who lives in Scranton and thinks they were about 10 years old then. “I think it was a Sunday afternoon . ... We all felt bad, I know that, me and Charlie.”
Their friend would return because the Bidens always came back. Biden’s mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, insisted on regularly piling her growing family into the car for that drive north to see her
family — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, long segments of summer, other occasions.
“We used to joke about it, we didn’t know he left,” said Tom Bell, 77, of Waverly Twp., a semiretired insurance agency owner and the other surviving close friend from Biden’s Scranton youth. “He was always here.”
The world knows Joe Biden, 77, as the former Delaware senator, President Barack Obama’s vice president and a three-time presidential candidate.
Bell and Orr knew him long before that, so few may smile more widely when Biden accepts the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination Thursday.
They remain his longestlasting friends.
Don’t tell them Biden isn’t from Scranton because he only lived here four or five years and grew up mostly in Delaware. Don’t tell them he only uses his Scranton roots as a political prop.
“There’s nothing phony about him. As far as our friendships, as far as Scranton, he’s not just saying that, he’s not just giving you lip service,” Orr said.
They know Biden’s Scranton stories, they know what Scranton means to him. They know he was born in St. Mary’s Hospital in South Scranton in 1942. Orr knew Biden’s Aunt Gertie, who cooked spaghetti that Biden loved eating in that North Washington Avenue home. Sometimes, Orr and Biden slept in the backyard on summer nights.
Orr and Bell know the kid who stuttered badly because they waited out his sentence struggles, unlike an impatient nun who, Biden once wrote, mocked his stutter.
“It didn’t bother us, though, because we were used to hearing it,” Bell said.
They knew the daredevil, the one who hopped on the bumpers of moving electric trolleys and skipped along garage rooftops imitating the heroes they watched at the Saturday movies at the Roosevelt Theater at Green Ridge Corners. “Charlie would get Joe to do all kinds of crazy things,” Bell said.
Back then, a fire smoldered beneath the surface of a mountain of culm, or coal waste, on Boulevard Avenue in Scranton, Bell said. Adults warned that the fire could collapse the surface and suck a kid under. Roth offered Biden $5 to climb the mountain. Biden hemmed and hawed.
“Finally, without warning, without anything, boom, he’s gone, on his way up to the top,” Bell said. “And I thought, ‘Joe, Jesus Christ, that’s a stupid thing to do. You’ll kill yourself.’ Now, we weren’t kids then. We were teenagers.”
By the way, Biden reached the top, and Bell followed.
Sometimes, they were more mischievous teenagers.
Once, Orr said, at 13 or 14 years old, he, Biden, Bell and maybe others perched on a ledge across from St. Clare’s Church on North Washington Avenue to toss water balloons at passing cars. One hit a 1950 Ford, whose toughlooking driver had an arm around a girl.
“I know the first water balloon hit the hood of the car. And, it sounded like a bomb going off,” Orr said. “The second one landed in the front seat between him and his girl.”
The car screeched to a stop. The driver jumped out.
“He chased me and Joe up to the Dunmore Cemetery,” Orr said. “We were hiding behind the tombstones.”
‘Joe wants you there’
As they grew up, Biden kept coming back. He would drop in on his way to and from Syracuse University, where he earned his law degree and met his first wife, Neilia. Orr said he and Roth ushered Joe and Neilia Biden’s wedding in August 1966. Bell was there, too.
They regularly attended Biden’s St. Patrick’s Day parties or swearing-in ceremonies. They also shared his tragedies. They attended his parents’ funerals. Bell distinctly remembers a phone call from Neilia Biden in December 1972, the month after Biden won his first Senate election. She told him of the brutal and exhausting election campaign and reminded him her husband expected him at the swearing-in ceremony.
“Joe wants you there,” she said.
A day or two later, a truck carrying ears of corn plowed into Neilia Biden’s car, killed her and their daughter, Naomi, and badly injured their two sons, Hunter and Beau. Bell and Orr kept a respectful distance for several months and relayed condolences and concerns through Roth, who spoke to Biden.
“It was devastating,” Orr said. “It just was.”
Eventually, Biden reconnected again and again, returning almost routinely after he was a senator for events, once with no fanfare to eulogize Roth, who died in September 2000, and publicly a couple of times as vice president.
After Obama tabbed Biden in August 2008, Bell and Orr showed up frequently in national media to tell their stories. Both said they felt uncomfortable at times, but wanted to help.
“That was glorious and fun and all that stuff. It gave me access to Joe Biden and I felt funny doing it because after a while I didn’t know if he expected me at every single function he did,” Bell said. “It became ‘Am I overbearing to Joe Biden?’ I didn’t want to appear that at all.”
Orr said he went along if Bell asked, but stayed quiet unless directly questioned.
“Sandy (Orr’s wife) and I are private people,” Orr said.
This time around, they plan to mostly sit back and watch. In this polarized political climate, they fear saying something that hurts their friend’s chances.
‘Not that again’
Biden comes back now mostly for political reasons, like the July 9 campaign visit to Mcgregor Industries in Dunmore. He always highlights his Scranton roots here because he thinks it helps his campaign. Don’t mistake that for just a campaign pose either, Bell and Orr said.
Often when Biden comes to town, he invites them to meet privately behind the scenes of whatever event he’s attending. Last October, Biden included the Orrs at his Fox Hill Country Club fundraiser in Exeter and asked about Bell, who couldn’t make it. On his way out, he handed Orr a coin with the vice presidential seal. He said to bring it back in exchange for something else the next time they see each other. Maybe a coin with a presidential seal? “I’m game,” Orr said. Bell and Orr rated a personal phone call when Biden decided to run for president last year. For three years, Orr crossed his fingers that Biden would. He was pleased. Bell was a bit concerned.
“I said, ‘Oh, Joe, Jesus Christ, not that again,’ and he got (annoyed) at me” and changed the subject, Bell said.
Bell wants his friend to win, but he worries.
“I don’t want to watch Biden go down again, if that’s going to happen. I like him, he’s a friend, he’s a good guy and I know he’s a capable guy,” Bell said. “To watch him go out in that way (losing) would be difficult.”
Biden still calls both now and then. A few months ago, he called Bell three times in a day to ask about some aspect of their youth. They rarely call him, figuring he’s plenty busy.
“He knows where we’re at,” Orr said.
In four days, the Democrats will officially begin counting on a Scranton native to unseat President Donald Trump. If Biden wins, Orr and Bell will personally know the president of the United States. Orr, who said he thinks his friend will “win big,” reacts with a youthful delight at the thought.
“It would be pretty cool,” Orr said.
Larry Orr, left, and Tom Bell stand outside St. Clare/st. Paul School in the Green Ridge section of Scranton on Wednesday. Orr and Bell are childhood friends of former Vice President Joe Biden.
In an official White House photograph from December 2016, former Vice President Joe Biden is seen with his childhood friend, Larry Orr, behind Gen. John Pershing’s desk in the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex.