PEOPLE chats with the new VP contender about his triumphs, tragedies – and his lucky charm

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
Updated August 24, 2008 01:30 PM
Credit: Jeff Roberson/AP

Joe Biden has been a U.S. Senator for 35 years – more than half his life – and has twice run for President. So you might think you already know all there is to know about the guy Barack Obama picked to join his campaign for the White House. PEOPLE went exclusively backstage at Saturday’s Obama-Biden rally in Springfield, Ill. – and learned a few things that might surprise you about the 65-year-old Democratic vice-presidential nominee from Delaware:

1. He used to stutter. Badly. And got teased for it.
“They called him ‘Buh-buh-Biden,’ ” Obama told the crowd of supporters as he introduced his running mate. Afterward, Biden told PEOPLE that he didn’t fully overcome his stutter until his junior year at the University of Delaware. “I had to screw up all my courage to take a public speaking class in college.” And now? “I don’t worry about it,” he says, “but every once in a while you catch yourself and you’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ It’s not very often, but it’s a humble reminder.”

2. Family tragedy nearly derailed Biden’s political career one month after he won his first Senate race in 1972.
Biden’s wife and college sweetheart, Neilia, was behind the wheel with their three children to get a Christmas tree when another driver struck their car. Neilia and 13-month-old daughter Naomi were killed, and their two toddler boys were badly injured. Obama described a somber swearing-in for Biden that January: “There was no ceremony in the Capitol; instead, he was standing by his sons in the hospital room where they were recovering.”

3. He later survived his own brush with death. Twice.
In 1988, after his first presidential run collapsed under a plagiarism scandal, Biden underwent surgery for two brain aneurysms. “They gave him slim odds to recover. But he did. He beat it,” said Obama.

4. If the Guinness World Records were to count Amtrak frequent-traveler miles, Biden’s would be in contention.
Every work day, the Senator commutes by train – 90 minutes each way – from his home in Wilmington, Del., to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Michelle Obama says it’s one of her favorite things about her husband’s running mate. “I like the fact that Joe’s on that train every day getting back home,” she told PEOPLE. “Those are the kind of values that I respect.”

5. He carries a lucky charm.
A Catholic once schooled by nuns, Biden carries a rosary in the change pocket of his pants and even had one under his pillow during his brain surgery. But he has to keep getting replacements. “I think people steal them on me,” he joked on Saturday, one of the rare occasions he was without his holy prayer beads. “I did have it with me [earlier], but I had a light blue suit on and Jill said, ‘No, wear a dark one.’ So I changed my suit and forgot the rosary in my pocket.”