Posted: June 5, 2015
THE LAST HOMECOMING
By Celia Cohen
Beau Biden has come home to Legislative Hall before.
He marched here in the autumn of 2009 with the Delaware National Guard, a JAG officer who blended indistinguishably into formation with the other troops, safely back from war in Iraq.
Amid the other joyful military families who came to Dover to watch the homecoming ceremonies on the expanse in front of Legislative Hall, there was a sprawling jumble of Bidens.
There were Joe and Jill, who were members of the official greeting party in Joe's first year as vice president, and Beau's wife Hallie and the kids, Natalie and little Hunter, then five and three years old, and Beau's brother Hunter and Joe's sister Valerie, among them.
It would have been a rare political mind that doubted Beau and the family would be back at Legislative Hall in January of 2017 for Beau to take the oath that would make the governor's office his next official home.
Instead, this. The wailing of police sirens, the rush of the motorcade and Bidens alighting, not a sprawl this time but a tight nucleus of consuming sorrow, Beau with them but not with them in their own aching version of the "missing man" formation, as a military guard of eight pallbearers bore him inside Legislative Hall to lie in honor.
It was the opening moments of three days of public mourning, beginning Thursday, in the last homecoming for Joseph Robinette Biden III, felled May 30 by brain cancer at 46, and it will not conclude before the president himself gives the eulogy on Saturday at the Mass at St. Anthony of Padua in Wilmington.
It was an outpouring of respect and emotion, the likes of which Delaware has not seen before.
On a sunless early summer day, with the sky like a low gray canopy of grief, the Biden family was greeted Thursday afternoon by Jack Markell, the governor, along with Matt Denn, the attorney general who ran for the office last year when Beau did not, Patti Blevins, the Senate president pro tem, Pete Schwartzkopf, the House speaker, Myron Steele, the former chief justice who swore in Beau to the bar, and Frank Vavala, the National Guard general who swore him in as a soldier.
All of them spoke at a short memorial service inside Legislative Hall -- except for Vavala, giving way to Ed Brandt, the National Guard chaplain who fittingly enough was part of the homecoming program when Beau returned from Iraq.
The Senate chamber was rearranged for the service. All 21 of the senators' desks were cleared out, the podium was draped in black, and in front of it was placed the casket covered by the Stars & Stripes, the flag that Beau swore to protect now protecting him.
Never has Legislative Hall, normally rowdy and raucous, two parts Machiavelli to one part mirth, been this silent and sad and so tender.
With about 150 current and past state officials standing in attendance, Beau was remembered as a Delawarean, a soldier, a family man and a political natural.
"The Biden family is Delaware's family," Markell said.
Beau was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross, the state's highest military honor, presented by the National Guard general on behalf of the governor.
He was praised by Schwartzkopf, who is from Sussex County, for shunning the race he was widely expected to make in 2010 for Joe's old Senate seat to run for re-election as attorney general, so he could stay on for the prosecution of Earl Bradley, the Sussex pediatrician convicted of sexually preying on his own tiny patients.
"I can't leave those kids and their parents when they need me the most," Schwartzkopf remembered Beau explaining to him.
It was a case that could ruin an officeholder. Instead, it made him a champion.
Steele recalled Beau once talking to him about a wild game dinner he was to attend in Leipsic and quipping he was glad to hear that Steele would be there, too.
"Men over 50 with guns aren't my constituency," Beau wisecracked, but Beau being Beau, Steele said, he won over the place.
Throughout the arrival and the service, Joe Biden appeared to be in so much pain that he would dissolve like smoke and vanish. Then the Delaware magic came, as first all the officials and then the public filed one by one by the family to offer their condolences, hour after hour after hour.
Joe looked stronger with every word, every handshake, every embrace. He is a warhorse. This is his Delaware, and he is "Our Joe," and his unyielding heart was beating for the homecoming of his own.