Before He Was Mr. President, He Was Professor Biden to His Widener Law Students

Emily Barrett, assistant director of communications
President Biden, then an adjunct professor, leads a discussion with students on the Delaware Law School campus.
President Biden, then a United States senator and adjunct professor, leads a discussion with students on the Delaware Law School campus.

Growing up, Joanne Spruill ’08L was always attracted to public service. Inspired by political figures at the national and state levels, the North Carolina native, who at the time was working in the Philadelphia area, got on track to a career in law and enrolled in Delaware Law School.

“It was a smaller school but still had a great, credible reputation. With the school being smaller, you really got to know your professors and administrative staff and even your classmates,” said Spruill.

Joe Biden lectures to a full auditorium following the 9/11 attacks.
Then-Senator Joe Biden turned his classroom into a public forum for Delaware Law following the 9/11 attacks.

One of those professors, whose lessons and career would later influence Spruill’s professional work, was President Joe Biden. 

Spruill enrolled in one of then-Senator Biden’s final semesters with Widener in spring 2008. After 17 years as an adjunct professor, Biden retired from his role as a Constitutional law educator when he accepted President Barack Obama’s offer to join the Democratic ticket as his vice presidential running mate. 

For the second half of his time at Widener, Biden co-taught with Professor Bob Hayman. The two alternated between leading the class which met on Saturday mornings. The seminar focused on Constitutional law, though topic discussions were known to shift, allowing Biden to share his expertise as a veteran member of Congress.

It’s an understatement to say that Joe Biden could share a uniquely informed perspective on how government worked. And share he did. — Delaware Law Emeritus Professor Bob Hayman

While the opportunity to engage with a U.S. senator and a future White House official was exciting and unconventional, Spruill remembers Biden’s humility and the collegial tone he brought to class. 

“I would feel so privileged because he would say things like ‘Colin Powell called me today’ and we would all be star struck that he would have those interactions but because he was so down-to-earth in the class you almost forgot who he was as a senator at the time,” said Spruill. 

Fellow Delaware Law alumnus Jon Paul DeMarco '08L credited Biden’s relatability and partnership with Hayman to transforming the course, acknowledging that “Vice President-elect Biden and Professor Hayman were obviously engaged in teaching the class together.”

Jon Paul DeMarco at his law graduation
DeMarco at his law graduation in 2008.

Rather than the traditional lecture hall, the small class met in a board room. DeMarco explains that each member of the class, including Biden, sat around a table to promote lively discussions. 

“We sat a conference table and he didn’t sit at the front and the head of the table, but he moved around. There were weeks when he sat right next to me,” said DeMarco, who recently joined the Delaware Law faculty as an adjunct professor.

Spruill noted how “he wanted an involved interactive discussion that included everybody.” 

He really made an effort to make sure that every student was involved and that everybody participated in the discussion, which I was appreciative of. — Joanne Spruill '08L 

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden’s name has become synonymous with Delaware after building a career in the United States Senate representing the First State for 36 years. That experience translated into meaningful lessons for students like Spruill and DeMarco. From the legislative process and policymaking to intergovernmental relations, Biden brought not only tremendous insight to the classroom, but a philosophy of collaboration and partnership.

Whenever he was talking about a senator it was never ‘the Republican senator,’ it was ‘Senator John McCain, he’s a friend of mine’. It was obvious that those relationships were important to him. — Jon Paul DeMarco '08L

Often Biden would refer to his relationship with the late Republican senator to emphasize the importance of respect, civil dialogue, and finding common ground regardless of one’s beliefs or background. 

“They were friends first and congressmen second. That made you realize that there was a time where even if you were from different political parties you could still get along, you just may have different ideologies,” said Spruill.

During a 2008 trip to Washington, D.C., Spruill (left of Biden) and classmates learned about the U.S. Senate first-hand.
Spruill (left of Biden) and her classmates sit and talk during their 2008 trip to Washington, D.C.

Of all the lessons that Biden imprinted on Spruill, one message given during a class trip to Washington D.C. to observe a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting still resonates with her. Sitting at table in his office once occupied by pro-segregation congressmen, Biden expressed the necessity for public service and equality for all Americans. 

“He said, 'you know, I wanted to be president… but this is bigger than me. This is historic.’ That really inspired me, in terms of the humbleness and selflessness that he had at that point to do what whatever he felt was needed for the country.”

Those words, Spruill said, “inspired me to be of service.” It led Spruill to a position with the Virginia Bureau of Insurance responsible for implementing a number of federal policies including the Affordable Care Act, one of the largest legislative accomplishments of the Obama-Biden administration.  

“From that I felt that I was able to provide a service in the same vein that he was discussing before, in terms of helping others and being available to others,” Spruill added.

On January 20, 2021, Spruill, DeMarco and the entire Widener community will watch their former professor be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. DeMarco hopes that Biden’s return to the executive office, this time as commander-in-chief, will make a lasting impression on the country, just as it did on him as student.

“I think now the tone of the country is a little different and I hope that he can use the things that I saw him use, as a human being and as a person, and return some of that to the country,” DeMarco said.

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