THE ROOTS ARE REAL

Joe Bi­den’s life­long friends share mem­o­ries, dis­miss talk of Scran­ton be­ing a po­lit­i­cal prop for the pres­i­den­tial hope­ful

The Times-Tribune - - FRONT PAGE - BY BORYS KRAWCZENIU­K STAFF WRITER

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.

Scran­ton sto­ries

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.

CHRISTO­PHER DOLAN / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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.

CHRISTO­PHER DOLAN / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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.

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