Catherine Eugenia “Jean” Finnegan Biden was the matriarch of the Biden family until her death in 2010 at age 92. She regularly appeared alongside her son, President Joe Biden, throughout his political career and was onstage with him the night he and President Barack Obama were declared the winners of the 2008 election.
According to an obituary by the Associated Press, Biden recalled that his mother had been apprehensive when he expressed an interest in politics in the 1970s. But despite her initial misgivings, he said his mother was an active participant in his early campaigns and even offered to travel with him when he was running to be the vice president.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Jean Biden Was Remembered in Her Native Scranton as the ‘Mother That Everybody Wanted to Have’
Jean Finnegan spent more than 30 years of her life in northeastern Pennsylvania. She was born in Scranton on July 7, 1917, to Ambrose J. Finnegan and Geraldine C. Blewitt, the New York Times reported. According to genealogy records, both of her parents were also born and raised in the Scranton area.
Jean married Joseph Robinette Biden in 1941 and they went on to have four children. Friends of the Bidens remembered Jean as “the type of mother that everybody wanted to have” in a piece for the local newspaper The Citizens’ Voice. Joe Biden’s childhood friend Tom Bell described Jean as “a very engaged mother. She knew everything about her kids – where they were all the time, what they were doing, what they were thinking. She was always checking on them.” Bell said he kept in touch with Jean after the Bidens moved to Delaware and keep her updated about what was happening in Scranton.
Another childhood friend of the Bidens, Larry Orr, recalled how Jean used to feed all of her son’s friends spaghetti at lunchtime. “I was in the house just about every day. She was like a second mother,” Orr told The Citizens Voice. “We were the apples of her eyes besides her own kids. She was really a grand lady.”
2. Jean Taught Her Sons to Stand up to Bullies & Once Told Off a Nun Who Had Mocked Joe Biden for His Stutter
Jean has been described as the type of mother who jumped to her children’s defense when they needed her. In his autobiography Promises to Keep, Joe Biden recalled how when he was a young student, his mother told off a nun who had mocked him for his stuttering:
I could see my mother pull herself up to her full height, five foot one. My mother, who was so timid, so respectful of the church, stood up, walked over in front of the nun and said, “If you ever speak to my son like that again, I’ll come back and rip that bonnet off your head. Do you understand me?”
But Jean also taught her children to defend themselves and others against bullies. Biden wrote in his memoir that his mother once paid her son Jim one dollar to “bloody the nose of a kid who was picking on smaller kids.”
Biden talked about the lessons his mother taught him when he delivered his acceptance speech to be Obama’s running mate at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which you can watch here. Jean was in the audience:
I wish that my dad was here tonight, but I am so grateful that my mom, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, is here. You know, she taught her children — all the children who flocked to our house — that you are defined by your sense of honor, and you are redeemed by your loyalty. She believes bravery lives in every heart, and her expectation is that it will be summoned.
Failure at some point in everyone’s life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable. As a child I stuttered, and she lovingly told me it was because I was so bright I couldn’t get the thoughts out quickly enough. When I was not as well-dressed as others, she told me how handsome she thought I was. When I got knocked down by guys bigger than me, she sent me back out and demanded that I bloody their nose so I could walk down that street the next day.
3. Jean Was Initially Worried Politics Would Ruin Her Son’s Reputation as a Lawyer
It took Jean some time to get on board when her oldest son told her was interested in running for the U.S. Senate. After graduating from the Syracuse University College of Law in 1968, Biden began his legal career in Wilmington, Time reported. He won an election for the county council board in 1970 but it was Biden’s next goal that worried Jean.
According to her obituary by the Associated Press, Jean expressed concern that national politics might negatively impact her son’s law career in Delaware. Biden said his mother asked him at the time, “You’re not going to run for Senate and ruin your reputation, are you?”
But she eventually came around to the idea and helped with the campaign. The New York Times reported about how that 1972 Senate race was a family affair and that Jean contributed by hosting “kaffeeklatsches,” which is a German word referring to friends getting together over coffee.
4. Biden Said His Mother Leaned on Their Catholic Faith to Help Him Cope After His Wife & Daughter Died in a Car Crash
Biden is only the second practicing Catholic to be elected president in the United States. In 2008, during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, he touched on how his mother had referenced their faith to help him recover following the tragic deaths of his wife, Neilia, and daughter Naomi in 1972: “After the accident, she [Jean] told me, ‘Joey, God sends no cross you cannot bear.'”
Biden has also been open about his Irish ancestry positively impacted his life and helped to shape his character. He explained to the Irish media company RTÉ in 2016, “My grandfather and grandmother Finnegan, all my mother’s brothers, and my father told us about the courage and commitment it took for our relatives to emigrate from Ireland — in the midst of tragedy to distant shores, where they didn’t know what awaited them. It took great courage.”
The Finnegan and Biden families have deep roots in Ireland. According to genealogy records, Jean’s family hails from County Louth, Ireland. Irish Central reported that all eight of Biden’s great-great-grandparents on his mother’s side were born in Ireland.
5. Jean Campaigned With Her Son When He Ran for President in 2008
Jean Biden may have been apprehensive when her older son first decided to enter national politics but she was all-in by the time he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. The New York Times reported Jean campaigned with Joe Biden before the Iowa caucuses. She was also by his side during campaign stops in Scranton and at the University of Delaware.
ABC News reported that in September 2008, Biden joked with reporters about how his mother had tried to insist on traveling on the campaign plane with him. He said Jean asked, “Do you want me to come with you, honey?” Biden said he responded, “Mom, I can make it.”
Jean died on January 8, 2010, at Biden’s home in Wilmington. NPR republished the statement Biden issued through the vice-presidential office at the time:
My mother, Catherine Eugenia “Jean” Finnegan Biden, passed away peacefully today at our home in Wilmington, Delaware, surrounded by her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren and many loved ones. At 92, she was the center of our family and taught all of her children that family is to be treasured, loyalty is paramount and faith will guide you through the tough times. She believed in us, and because of that, we believed in ourselves. Together with my father, her husband of 61 years who passed away in 2002, we learned the dignity of hard work and that you are defined by your sense of honor. Her strength, which was immeasurable, will live on in all of us.