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Joe Biden's first wife Neilia Hunter Biden is mostly remembered for the car accident that killed her and the couple's baby daughter and enveloped her husband in a cloud of grief which has shaped his life.
But what might not be so well-remembered is she was the woman who helped Biden make his first big splash onto the national political scene.
Hunter Biden's belief in her driven, ambitious husband set him on a path that began with a seat on Delaware's New Castle County Council and has continued nearly 50 years later as the Democratic presidential nominee seeks the nation's highest office.
Although she had a master's degree, Neilia was often described in stories from The News Journal archives as "pretty," "strikingly attractive and utterly charming" and noted for her "beauty queen" looks.
However, the 30-year-old beauty also was the "brains," as Joe liked to say, behind his rapid political ascent and he widely credits her with being "a more instinctive pol than I was."
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"She was just a dynamo. She was bubbly, enthusiastic. She could get you to do anything on the campaign. You could never say no to Neilia," said Karen Peterson, a former Democratic Delaware state senator from 2003 to 2017, who knew Neilia and volunteered on Biden's first Senate campaign.
"She was the energy behind his campaign. She and Valerie, Joe's sister, were the glue of the campaign. Valerie was the strategist and Neilia was like the head cheerleader. She was rah, rah, rah. She was magnetic," Peterson said.
Neilia, who was married to Joe for six years, didn't live to see her husband occupy the Senate office he held continuously for Delaware from 1973 to 2009.
She and the couple's 13-month-old daughter Naomi Christina, known as "Amy," died shortly after they were involved in a car accident in Hockessin, Delaware, a week before Christmas 1972.
The Bidens' two boys, Beau, then 4, and Hunter, 3, also in the car, were seriously injured. The accident was about a mile away from the family's historic house in North Star, once the estate of Republican senator T. Coleman du Pont.
Just six weeks earlier, Joe Biden, then 29, won a stunning victory over Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, a two-term incumbent who seemed unbeatable. At that time, the win was considered one of the country's biggest political upsets and made Biden the nation's youngest senator.
Joe met Neilia, who grew up in New York's Finger Lakes region, in 1963 on a beach while Biden was on a spring break trip in the Bahamas. Neilia, who attended school in Skaneateles and Auburn, New York, studied English at Syracuse University. Joe was a junior at the University of Delaware.
Her father Robert Hunter owned a diner in Auburn, and later other restaurants, and ran the food service for a community college. The family was considered prosperous.
Neilia had been a homecoming queen and a dean's list student. Joe was a football player at UD.
This was no spring fling: it was love. In his 2007 memoir, "Promises to Keep," Joe said he quit football so he could spend weekends visiting Neilia. He also planned to go to law school at Syracuse for the same reason.
She earned a master's degree in education from Syracuse and taught English and worked with mentally challenged children.
"I guess the only time I got in trouble with my parents was when I wanted to marry Joe. He was Irish Catholic and we were Scotch Presbyterian, but they liked him too much to say no," she told The News Journal in an interview.
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The couple got married in 1966 and moved to Delaware. They began their family, but Neilia told The News Journal she eventually wanted to get her doctorate and teach at a college when her children were older.
Neilia, a Republican, registered to become a Democrat. Joe initially was a criminal attorney in Wilmington, Delaware, and later handled civil cases. Judicial observers told The News Journal in 1973 that Biden's courtroom style was flamboyant and often annoyed judges and angered opposing attorneys.
"I can't stand to lose," Biden said.
On his desk was a photo of Neilia in a red bikini standing in front of a motorcycle, according to News Journal archives.
Neilia worked at St. Catherine of Siena school as a teacher. Nearby, the Biden family had a 4-bedroom brick Colonial home in a quiet cul-de-sac on Woods Road in Faulkland Woods, near Brandywine Springs Park in Wilmington. Friends of Neilia liked to tell a story of her coming home for lunch from school. Someone left a sliding door open and a cow wandered into the living room.
Biden, at 28, had run for New Castle County Council's fourth district seat in 1970 and won by more than 2,000 votes.
Joe's youth, energy and aggressiveness attracted the interest of state Democratic party leaders who began courting him for Boggs' seat.
Biden felt Boggs, who served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, two as governor and two as senator, was vulnerable.
"Joe Biden is one of the most promising young men the Democratic party Delaware has ever seen. He has all the qualifications for a great future in government," Delaware's Democratic State Chairman Harry Topel told The News Journal in 1970.
Neilia, Joe would tell The News Journal, at first apparently wasn't much interested in his political ambition.
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She wanted Biden to become a judge and thought a rough campaign would hurt his career. Neilia also didn't want to borrow money. Biden said he was making $15,000 a year as a lawyer and couldn't finance a campaign.
Together, the young couple made the decision at 2 a.m. one day that he would run for Senate.
"She came around to the thought that there would always be pressure on me to run for something. What she said was 'I suppose you have to try it once, win or lose, or you'll never be happy with yourself,'" Biden told The News Journal.
In 1971, the party leaders set up a 25-person Democratic Renewal Commission and invited the state's most prominent Democrats. Joe Biden was the youngest member by nearly 15 years.
"Neilia saw the advantages of my being on the commission even before I did," Joe wrote in his memoir.
"She was a more instinctive pol than I was, so it was Neila’s idea to have 'Blue Ribbon' dinners at my parents' house on Woods Road. My mom and sister, Val, would help Neilia cook and clear out the living room to make space for the commission members."
The News Journal covered the young family, whom some likened to the Kennedys. Neilia didn't like comparisons.
"I don't know the Kennedys, but I don't think they could be half as great as the Bidens," she told The News Journal.
The Biden clan kept their circle tight. Joe's parents, two brothers, sister and brother-in-law all worked on his campaign. Said Neilia a week before her death, "we have very few close friends outside of the family."
"There were only two people who made important decisions in the campaign. Myself and Neilia," Joe told The News Journal in a 1972 interview. "She was the brains. Also she prevented me from blowing my top when I got angry late in the going."
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Biden said he came to rely on Neilia as "my adviser. I want her to organize my Washington office." The late News Journal columnist Ron Williams, who knew Neilia, said she seemed to like campaigning as much as her husband.
Karen Peterson, who was 22 when she worked on Biden's campaign, said she became friendly with Neilia. The couple often came to the home of Peterson's father Edward F. "Pete" Peterson, who was New Castle County's Democratic chairman.
Peterson said Neilia had an easy, relaxed manner. She remembers when Democratic vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of the late President John F. Kennedy, came to Old New Castle to stump for Biden just before election night. Peterson lent Neilia her ski jacket to wear and the two were standing on the stage behind Shriver. Two young children raced around behind them.
Neilia whispered to Peterson "we need to get these kids off the stage." The next time, they ran by, Peterson said, "she nabbed one and I nabbed the other."
Neilia got down and said to the little boy, " 'the two of you need to be quiet while Mr. Shriver is speaking.' "
The child looked at Neilia and said, " 'you mean my daddy?'"
Peterson began chuckling. Neilia said, "'Oh my god, we just kidnapped Kennedy grandchildren.'"
"No one got arrested that night," Peterson said, but it remained a private joke between the women.
"We would both laugh and say, 'Remember kidnapping Kennedy grandchildren?'"
The Biden family holed up in a room at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington the night of the 1972 election. When they came down after Joe's stunning victory, the couple both took turns at the microphone, talking to the crowd.
In her 2019 memoir "Where the Light Happens" Jill Biden, Joe's wife since June 1977, wrote that she met Neilia that night.
Jill and her then-husband Bill Stevenson, who owned the popular Stone Balloon nightclub in Newark, went to the Hotel du Pont victory party. Jill, who said she didn't encounter Joe at that time, said she was struck by Neilia's poise.
"She had an easy, natural beauty that made her look almost out of place in the frantic crowd," Jill wrote.
The couple was getting ready to move to Washington, D.C.
Shortly before the car accident, Biden told The News Journal, he and Neilia were in the living room of their North Star home. She was writing Christmas cards in front of a fire "and I was in my lounge chair, a pompous young senator thinking about the big things I was going to do in Washington."
Biden said Neilia interrupted his pensive mood. "What's going to happen, Joey? Things are too good," he remembers her saying.
It was a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.
At about 2:30 p.m. Dec. 18, Neilia was driving westbound on Valley Road, a then-rural road in Hockessin. Her Chevrolet station wagon pulled away from the stop sign (there is now a traffic light at the intersection) and was struck on the left side by the front side of a tractor-trailer. The driver, Curtis C. Dunn, 43, was on his way to his home in Kaolin, Pennsylvania.
At the accident scene, the roadway was scattered with corncobs from the truck and campaign literature from the recent Senate race from the Bidens' car. A Christmas tree was still wedged in the station wagon.
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Neilia and Amy died on arrival to the hospital. Beau suffered a broken leg, and Hunter a slight skull fracture.
About 650 people attended a December memorial service at St. Mary Magdelen Catholic Church off Concord Pike. Biden showed up unexpectedly and comforted mourners.
More than 40 years later, he would do the same for the thousands who waited hours in a more than two-block-long procession at Wilmington's St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church to pay their respects to Neilia and Joe's oldest son, Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015 at age 46.
According to a 1972 News Journal article, Biden stood before the altar at St. Mary's and talked about his "two girls."
He told the crowd Neilia "had a principle – she treated everyone the same and that worked both ways. Those who were poor, Black, minority, affluent or socially esteemed, she made no distinction among them. "
Said Biden, "I was probably one of those phony liberals....the kind that go out of their way to be nice to a minority and she made me realize I was making a distinction. But in dealing with minorities, she made no subtle, condescending gestures, she made no distinctions.
"I'm going to be that way. I'm going to try and follow her example," Biden said.
Biden's January 1973 Senate swearing-in ceremony was held at the small chapel of the then-Delaware Division of the Wilmington Medical Center.
Neilia's father, Robert Hunter, held the Bible. Her mother Louise shed tears as the Rev. Justin E. Diny, headmaster of Archmere Academy, Biden's alma mater, began the invocation and then asked for a moment of mediation in memory of Neilia and Amy.
Mother and daughter were buried in All Saints Cemetery off Kirkwood Highway. The graves were later moved to St. Joseph's on the Brandywine cemetery in Greenville, the Catholic church where the Biden family now worships. The Biden family plot there also includes the graves of Biden's father Joseph Sr., his mother Jean, and Beau.
On the anniversary of the car accident, Joe, Hunter and Beau would go to the cemetery, Jill Biden wrote in her 2019 memoir. She would buy a grave blanket with white roses, Neilia's favorite flower, and then have a spread of food for the men when they returned from the cemetery.
In 2015, after Beau's death, Jill wrote that she started accompanying Joe on his annual visit to Neilia's gravesite.
"I owed her so much: my loyalty, my gratitude for the gift of these beautiful boys, and, yes, my love," she said.
One Christmas, Hunter and Beau gave Neilia's engagement ring to Jill, but she wrote she is passing it along to Hunter's daughter, Naomi, who was named after his late sister.
Jill also has made sure Neilia's memory is preserved by having photos of her throughout their Greenville house.
"There was no 'us' without her," she wrote in her book.
"Neilia would always be Mommy, but Jill was Mom," Joe wrote in "Promises to Keep."
"When she embraced me and the boys, she embraced everything. The boys went to visit Neilia’s parents in Skaneateles almost every year at Easter break and during the summer. If I was stuck on Senate or campaign business, Jill would drive the boys north. She’d call the Hunters to brag that one of the boys got an A on the test or played a good game."
Delaware residents also have paid tribute to Neilia.
The Neilia Hunter Biden park is tucked away in a hidden corner of the Brack Ex-Roselle neighborhood near Elsmere.
The 10-acre New Castle County Park was dedicated to Neilia Hunter Biden 45 years ago.
Construction on the park, southeast of Prices Corner, began in June 1974 after $126,000 was allocated by New Castle County Council. The name was proposed by residents of the area.
Biden, while a County Councilman, had represented the area. During his two years on council, he had talked about preserving green space. According to archives, Neilia Hunter Biden had helped form the neighborhood's civic association and asked the county to purchase the park.
The park was developed with a ball field, a football field, two basketball courts, parking for 30 cars and playground equipment.
Jim Wrightson, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1976 and served as its civic association president for 14 years, said there is a stone and flagpole dedicated to Neilia Hunter Biden.
During a recent visit, the park, freshly mowed, was empty. A reporter brushed aside grass clippings covering a memorial stone which reads: This park dedicated to the memory of Neilia Hunter Biden June 7, 1975.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Joe Biden's first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, was brains of Senate run