Donna Levin on Meeting Joe Biden: Little Did I Know

I met Joe Biden. He wouldn’t remember, and I’m a little surprised that I do, given the yawning lacunae in my recollections of that period: It would have been in the fall of 1976 or the spring of 1977, and he was in his first term as the U.S. senator from Delaware.

Memory is the both the Play-Doh and the Swiss cheese of the brain. It’s also the Whack-a-Mole and the Tilt-a-Whirl. That is, in less whimsical terms, and, as I have already hinted, there are a few pieces missing.

Here’s what I know: When I was twenty-two, I started my second year at Hastings College of the Law, a second-tier law school that has just been elevated in stature by the election to the vice presidency of Kamala Harris, a fellow alumna.

My father was a graduate of Berkeley Law, which until early 2020 was called “Boalt Hall.” The name “Boalt” was dropped when the racist history of its namesake was uncovered. I digress, but only for the first time.

Dad took a great interest in my law school career—much more than I did, as it turned out—and as soon as I got my schedule, he came rushing over to look. “You have Professor Kagan for corporations. I was in his class!” (The exclamation point is mine. Dad is a low-key guy.)

Back then, when electric typewriters were the ne plus ultra of office technology, many Ivy League and other elite law schools forced their professors to retire at age sixty-five. The Hastings administration had no such rule, and they recruited from this unemployment line such accomplished educators that they had one of most impressive faculties in the United States, if some of the worst teeth. The members of the resulting teaching staff were called “the Sixty-Five Club.”

I knew about the Sixty-Five Club, but not about its origins until I started writing this piece. We are sticking, in part, with the theme of memory, because who needs memory when we have Google? I learned that the Sixty-Five Club was the brainchild of David Ellington Snodgrass, which is a name I plan to use for a fictional character, though I’ll drop one of the “L”s so I don’t get sued. Snodgrass didn’t deserve that last name (who would, short of a convicted felon?) but he deserves a lot of credit for seeing past what he called “statutory senility.”

Mandatory retirement has disappeared from academia (though I just read an article by a sixty-four-year old who argues for its reinstatement—boy, the arguments you can enter into when you have a search engine), and the last member of the Sixty-Five Club died in 2001.

That was how Professor Kagan ended up at Hastings, after being forced him to retire—from a job he hadn’t wanted in the first place. My dad has never let facts interfere with a good story, but according to him, at least, Kagan had been a partner in a high-powered, competitive law firm, when he had a heart attack in his late thirties. His doctors insisted that he leave the intense world of corporate law for something less stressful, and that’s how he ended up teaching.

I was pleased to have made this new connection with our family history, and the great name of Levin, subsistence farmers in the Pale of Settlement for generations. At the first opportunity, I introduced myself to Prof. Kagan as the daughter of one of his former students.

A week later he had another heart attack. I can be glib about this, because he recovered and eventually returned to teaching, but I’ve always wondered if the shock of realizing that an entire generation had passed since he’d been forced to leave law practice for his health might have brought it on.

I don’t remember the name of the professor who took over for the rest of the semester. I don’t remember the names of any of the other profs I had that year—all male, except for one adjunct faculty member who gave lectures on personal injury and promised you an A if you sat in on twenty hours of personal injury litigation—twenty hours that cemented my decision never to practice law. I do remember, though, that Kagan’s replacement was friends with a youngish senator, Joe Biden, who came to talk to us.

Okay, so it wasn’t like we had cappuccino together, and discussed what group qualifies as a “suspect class” for purposes of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (I assure you that the term “transgender” had not entered the discussion in 1976 or 1977), But it was a small classroom, and I was sitting in front, only a few feet away.

I’m sure Mr. Biden would be as relieved as the turkey he’ll pardon next November to learn that he made an impression on me as likable, modest, and smart. Beyond that, I don’t remember what he talked about, and if I still had my notes, they would most likely document the number of calories I’d consumed that day. But I’ve always wanted to have a good reason to write “little did I know,” and here’s my chance.

Also my chance to say that I’m glad that, in the end, the American people didn’t hold Mr. Biden’s age against him.


Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.

Design by Steven S. Drachman from an image by Ulleo/Pixabay