Some at Pfeiffer fondly recall Biden’s 1974 visit

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
MISENHEIMER ó It has been more than 34 years since Joe Biden visited Pfeiffer University to deliver a commencement speech.
But his presence made an impression that still lingers.
Biden, recently tabbed as Barack Obama’s vice presidential running mate, came to what was then Pfeiffer College in May 1974. He’d been selected by a group of the school’s seniors to deliver the commencement speech.
“This was not a case of the president deciding who was going to speak,” said Gene Pickler, an economics professor who has taught part time at the school since 1961. “The students wanted him here.”
He said Biden made a simple request upon arriving in Misenheimer.
“He said, ‘I’m Joe,’ ” Pickler said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to be called Mr. Biden or Sen. Biden. Just call me Joe.’ ”
Biden is the sixth-youngest person ever elected to the Senate. He turned 30 shortly after being elected in 1972 and was still only 31 the day he visited Misenheimer.
Biden, Pickler said, arrived in Misenheimer alone. His wife and youngest daughter had been killed the previous year in a car accident.
“He had no family members with him, no entourage,” Pickler recalled.
All Biden asked, Pickler said, is to be housed on campus. He didn’t want to stay in a hotel, he told school administrators.
They honored his request, putting him up in the James Center, a facility on campus that includes a couple of apartments.
Pickler said that all these years later, he still remembers portions of what Biden spoke on during that commencement address. It was only a few months before Richard Nixon would resign the presidency, Pickler noted, and Biden was fed up with politics as usual in Washington.
“He was very much down on Nixon,” Pickler said. “He was very down on the power that people in Washington get.”
After delivering the commencement address Sunday morning, Biden stayed on campus until Monday.
On Sunday afternoon, he met with a group of people at the home of Henry Culp, one of the school’s trustees. Included in the group that came to speak with Biden were a number of students.
“It was simply an afternoon of sitting around with him and visiting,” Pickler said.
He said one story Biden told made an impression. Biden said he was about to cross a street in Washington when a police officer suddenly stopped traffic and motioned pedestrians to proceed.
Biden looked around to see who the bigwig was who prompted the officer to stop traffic.
Only then, Biden said, did he realize the officer halted all the cars because the senator was wanting to cross the road.
“I was terribly embarrassed,” Pickler remembers Biden saying.
Pickler said he thinks Obama made a good choice in selecting Biden for a running mate. The Democratic National Convention is being held this week in Denver and Biden is expected to address convention-goers tonight.
“Personally, yeah, I think he’d make a wonderful vice president,” Pickler said.
“He’s a genuinely nice man,” chimed in Pickler’s wife, Janet, who also met Biden back in 1974.
Bill Reasonover, 81, was news service director at Pfeiffer for 20 years, retiring in 1985. He’s retired now to Camden, S.C., and remembers Biden’s visit to Pfeiffer much as Pickler remembers it.
Reasonover said a note that Biden’s secretary sent the school just prior to the senator’s arrival made an impression on him. In the note, Biden’s secretary asked that the senator not be put in a situation where he was around alcohol.
“He said his wife and child were killed by a drunk driver,” Reasonover recalled.
He said Biden was still getting over the death of his loved ones and had to spend time alone each day in order to meditate.
Though Biden’s first wife and his youngest child were killed in the accident, two of his other children who were also in the wreck survived. Biden remarried in 1977. He and his second wife, Jill, had two more children.
Reasonover said he and a handful of other school administrators took Biden to a fish camp near Misenheimer on the Saturday night of his visit.
“He’d never had an experience like that before,” Reasonover said, chuckling.
He remembered that a number of Pfeiffer students were at the restaurant and came over to sit with the senator and school administrators.
“We had a delightful time,” Reasonover said.
He said that on Sunday afternoon, when Biden was invited to Culp’s house for conversation, the talk turned to N.C. Sen. Sam Ervin who at the time was involved in the legal proceedings concerning the Watergate break-in.
Reasonover said Biden said Ervin’s handshake reminded him of his hand being swallowed by an alligator.
Reasonover agreed with Pickler that Obama’s choice of Biden for a running mate can only be a positive for the Democrats. Reasonover said he felt that Biden would appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.
“He’d make a good vice president,” Reasonover said.